Kenneth Shinozuka was six years old when he first found out his grandfather had Alzheimer’s disease. It was a bracing August morning and the police turned up at the door with his grandfather, dressed in nothing but his pyjamas. They found him two miles away, walking along the freeway. He had been walking through the night. That moment, back in 2005, would change his family forever.
Shocked and concerned by his grandfather’s tendencies to wander in the night, after numerous incidents, the budding inventor set about finding a solution. Shinozuka was by no means your average American six-year-old. Inspired by his parents, both of whom are civil engineering professors, he never tired of dreaming in his small bedroom about creating the next big invention.
Supremely smart and motivated, Shinozuka’s first invention was a device which would send an alert to a carer’s wristwatch when an elderly parent had fallen in the bathroom. Not content with his ‘Smart Bathroom’ idea, at the age of seven, he created a Smart Medicine Box that emits a sound and flashing light to remind patients to take the right medicine at the right time.
This week Shinozuka, now 15, from New York, has been announced as the third annual Scientific American Science in Action Award winner, receiving $50,000 and access to a year mentorship scheme, for his latest acclaimed invention. Scientific American’s Editor-in-Chief, Mariette DiChristina, describes the award’s ethos as “honouring a project that can make a practical difference by addressing an environmental, health or resources challenge.”
Shinozuka had his eureka moment while looking after his grandfather one evening and watching him step out of bed. “The moment his foot landed on the floor, a light bulb flashed in my head,” says Shinozuka. He continues “Why don’t I put a pressure sensor on the heel of his foot? The moment he steps onto the floor, the sensor would detect the pressure caused by his body weight, and the signal could wirelessly trigger an audible alert in my aunt’s smartphone.”
It was with this one moment of inspiration that the super-slim sensors gradually came into fruition. His hypothesis was clear. Create a wearable device that would reliably detect and issue an alert within three seconds of the patient stepping out of bed, without any false alarm making it affordable, easy to operate, and powered by coin battery.
With Shinozuka’s drive and steely determination way beyond his years, he extensively researched sensors and designed a wearable circuit that would integrate Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) a rapidly-evolving, revolutionary wireless technology that has enabled the creation of many novel wearable systems. He further needed to create an app which would transform a smartphone into a caretaker’s monitor.
“I will never forget how deeply moved my entire family was when they first witnessed my sensor detecting grandfather’s wandering,” notes Shinozuka. “At that moment I was struck by the power of technology to change lives.”
Shinozuka’s interest lies in the health of the human brain. He aspires to bridge engineering and neuroscience by inventing technology “to explore the mysteries of the brain and find a cure to Alzheimer’s.” His sensors have opened up new avenues of research using the data from his grandfather to study the correlation between the frequency of his nightly wandering and his daily diet and activities.
The young inventor has also been invited to Google’s Headquarters in September to compete in the 15-to-16-year-old age category in the Google Science Fair. His project will then be presented to a panel of international judges, including science luminaries and technologists, for a possible $100,000 in scholarship funds.
Previous winners have included Elif Bilgin, from Turkey, who developed a method to make bioplastics out of banana peels and 14 year-old Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Malalela, of Swaziland, who created a unique simplified hydroponic method for poor subsistence farmers. DiChristina describes this year’s winner as making a “practical difference.” She says: “Shinozuka’s wearable sensor is a great example of how the ideas of inspiring kid scientists can change the world.”
Shinozuka’s next big challenge is to spread awareness of medical conditions associated with an increasingly aging population. He hopes to inspire more young people to find innovative solutions to address such societal challenges.
“This project has given me an incredible life experience – the excitement of creating something new, the pain of getting nowhere, the pride of accomplishment and overcoming obstacles, and the peace of mind from knowing that my grandfather is safe,” brims Shinozuka.
Those childhood dreams of creating the next big innovation are no longer a distant fantasy. “I am now even more motivated to pursue my passion for technological innovations that solve healthcare problems facing our increasingly ageing society,” Shinozuka concludes.
The winners of the 2014 Google Science Fair will be announced on September 22.