David Hojah is a former NASA engineer, but his real passion is healthcare.
Growing up, he saw his family members taking care of his aunt, who had multiple sclerosis, and his uncle, who had a spinal cord injury.
Now, he’s developing tech to help people with disability have more independence. The company he founded, Parrots Inc., makes an AI-powered product that fits onto a wheelchair to help people communicate and navigate their surroundings. The 2-year old startup is racking up plaudits in a field where funding can be tight and the need is high.
Parrots won second place at a Novartis-sponsored competition for assistive tech in June. Hojah and Parrots were named “Entrepreneur of the Year” in November by the Association of Washington Business. The company was also one of seven delegates chosen by Washington’s Department of Commerce for the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
“Seeing the impact on the users, the patient, the caregivers, it’s a great joy by itself,” said Hojah, who is also CEO of the Spokane, Wash,-based startup. Parrots also took home the top award in the artificial intelligence, robotics and voice category at South by Southwest’s “Pitch 2021.”
The company’s product, “Polly,” uses machine learning to monitor, learn and predict situations in the environment. It provides a 360-degree view of surroundings and “intuitive navigation” that can be hooked up to home devices. The tech incorporates facial, object and speech recognition, and integrates into Alexa and other platforms.
The tech can come bundled with a camera-containing device that looks like a Parrot – birds are Hojah’s “spirit animal” — and people can also use their own tablets. Hojah said the tools are “hardware agnostic.”
Polly can learn and anticipate a patient’s needs, for instance changing the thermostat if someone appears to be cold. “The system understands them by facial expressions and body language,” said Hojah. Polly can hook into existing tech such as joysticks or eye-tracking controls and it has a “smart voice” that can interact automatically or manually.
English physicist Stephen Hawking, who died of ALS in 2018, navigated his environment with devices that were custom made, said Hojah. Parrot instead aims to make assistive tech more accessible and affordable.
“There are millions of people like Stephen Hawking out there, just missing accessible technologies to be the next scientist, engineer, designer, whatever they want to be. And I want to empower all of them to be able to achieve their dreams,” said Hojah.
Parrot now has more than 200 early users, mainly with multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease. Users paid $1,500 up front, followed by $50 monthly, though prices will increase after the company reaches 500 customers.
Novartis is a partner and a funder of the pre-seed, 9-employee company, along with Verizon. Other funders include the National Science Foundation and prominent Spokane angel investor Tom Simpson.
Hojah previously built drones to deliver medical devices and a wheelchair that converts into a walker, as a founder of several small partially grant-funded companies. He also worked as an aerospace designer at NASA while earning an undergraduate degree in mechanical design engineering at Harvard. He graduated in 2017 and co-founded Loro, which operated for two years and developed some of the tech used by Parrot.
Hojah has learned how to ask people what they need, he said. Before building Polly, “we basically talked to everyone. All kinds of patients, with different kinds of conditions,” he noted. They also spoke with caregivers of all stripes, from volunteers to family members. Parrot is developing systems to alert them and monitor patient vital signs, body language and emotions.
University of Washington associate professor of computer science Maya Cakmak, called the company “user-centered.” Cakmak is also director of the UW’s Human-Centered Robotics Lab, and though she has not tested Parrot’s tech herself she has heard and read about the company.
Cakmak notes that multiple Parrot board members have ALS or are experts on the condition. Advisors include Steve Saling, who has ALS and started the non-profit ALS Residence Initiative to inspire nursing homes to build automated environments for people with the condition.
Cakmak calls Parrots’ approach to physical and social challenges “pragmatic.” She said: “They’re looking at the problem holistically, not trying to solve it with one device but acknowledging simpler solutions that involve changing the environment.” Saling’s nursing home, for instance, interacts with Polly to open doors and elevators, a capability featured on the Today Show.
There is a lot of room for innovation to assist people with ALS and other conditions. But the challenge of making a profit constricts funding opportunities, said Cakmak. “Unfortunately, given there is no ‘economy of scales,’ companies focused solely on assisting people with disabilities have a difficult time raising funding,” she said. But she pointed to a few companies making headway.
Hello Robot makes a “mobile manipulator” and Kinova sells a wheelchair-mounted robot arm. Labrador is developing robots to assist people in everyday tasks and recently raised $3.1 million in seed funding led by Amazon’s Alexa Fund and iRobot Ventures. And smart wheelchair startup Luci sells a system that senses the environment and avoids drop-offs and collisions.
In 2014, Microsoft partnered with former pro football player Steve Gleason, who has ALS, to develop a way to drive a wheelchair with eye movements. Microsoft’s eye-tracking technology was later incorporated into Windows and a wheelchair system available from medical device company Numotion. Parrots also syncs up with Microsoft’s tech and other eye gaze tools. Compatibility with other systems is a key aim, said Hojah.
Parrots will soon move from its space in Spokane to Washington State University’s sp3nw incubator in the city. The company’s advisory board includes neuroscientist Marcos Frank at WSU’s Steve Gleason Institute for Neuroscience, which aims to improve quality of life for people with neurodegenerative disease. Gleason played football at WSU.
Hojah said that Parrot stands out for combining several capabilities within one product and for its ease of use. “Simplicity is the most important thing,” said Hojah. “It takes a lot of time and effort to make it simple, but once you get it done, you’re going to benefit everybody.”