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Lucas Wilson aged 12 is one of 15,000 children in B.C. with autism spectrum disorder, a number that’s steadily on the rise. His condition makes him susceptible to meltdowns, which feel like he ran a marathon, was battered in a boxing match and played 10 chess games all at once, says his mother.

It’s an overwhelming loss of control.

Andrea Palmer, a UBC engineering grad, aims to help children like Lucas avoid the trauma of meltdowns with an innovative new wearable technology that notifies parents to when their child’s anxiety levels are about to spike. This gives parents valuable time to intervene before the onset of a meltdown. 

Wearable technology to measure anxiety

Her company Awake Labs is one of six social ventures joining the Coast Capital Savings Innovation Hub, a one-year business accelerator program run by UBC Sauder’s Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing. Awake’s product Reveal, is an ankle bracelet that uses sensors to measure three physiological indicators of anxiety – sweat, heart rate and skin temperature. The readings are transmitted to a caregiver’s smartphone in real time, allowing them to step in before a situation escalates.  

“Reveal takes the guesswork out of when an autistic child is about to experience a meltdown,” explains the young CEO. “Parents can then intervene early with a calm-down routine.” What keeps her driven to perfect the prototype device, are the families who tell Palmer how much benefit it would bring to their daily lives, she says.

Creating real social impact

“We knew from the start that we wanted to create something with a real social impact, not just another consumer toy,” adds Palmer reflecting back on when she was planning where to focus her entrepreneurial energies.

Andrea Palmer, CEO of Awake Labs

The Head of the Pacific Autism Family Centre Foundation, Sergio Cocchia, is a strong supporter of Awake Labs’ work. “I see a huge value in Reveal helping young adults with autism to become independent and successfully find employment,” he says, noting the value the product will have for older people with autism in self-regulating their anxiety episodes.

The fast-rising social impact start-up, Awake Labs was formed one year ago in the joint UBC Sauder - UBC Applied Science course, New Venture Design. Encouraged by mentors at UBC Sauder like Adjunct Professor Blair Simonite and Lecturer Paul Cubbon, Palmer entered and won the 2015 Canadian Global Impact Competition, leading to a 10-week graduate scholarship at Singularity University in Silicon Valley.

From prototyping to commercialization

From there Palmer won the Fall 2015 First Look Forum grand prize of $10,000, before being accepted into a pre-accelerator called S-Factory, part of Start-Up Chile, where she is now prototyping Reveal. When she gets to the Innovation Hub at UBC Sauder she says she’ll be ready for product testing.

“While in the Innovation Hub, we also hope to raise funds through investors and commercialize Reveal,” explains Palmer from her current office in the shadow of Chile’s Andes Mountains.

Launched four years ago, the Coast Capital Saving Innovation Hub, supports new cohorts of start-ups dedicated to enacting positive social and environmental change every year. At the Innovation Hub ventures receive mentoring from Sauder faculty, alumni and industry experts and work alongside the program’s other social entrepreneurs in a dynamic communal work space. They also receive full-time support from paid UBC Sauder interns who work for the young companies in the summer.

Using business to solve global challenges

“Receiving mentorship and being immersed in the social impact community with like-minded people is especially valuable to us,” says Palmer.

This year, the Innovation Hub, established with a $1-million grant from B.C. credit union Coast Capital Savings, will help its six newest social ventures tackle a range of social and environmental challenges – from aiding people with mobility issues to contributing to the green economy.

Associate Professor James Tansey

“Increasingly people are turning to the tools and methods of business to solve challenges, particularly in Vancouver’s entrepreneurial community,” says, Associate Professor James Tansey, executive director of UBC Sauder’s Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing. “We’re looking forward to seeing Awake Labs and this year’s other Innovation Hub ventures evolve and contribute to establishing the city as a world leader for social entrepreneurship.”

Disclaimer: To protect the privacy of certain individuals the names and identifying details have been changed.