They were overjoyed, said Nuala Burke (29) and Lise Pape (37) from Denmark, that their invention won the € 1 million prize for social innovation from the European Commission. It will bring them closer to their goal of enabling people who have difficulty walking, (for example because of Parkinson’s disease), to be able to live a more mobile and independent life for a longer period of time.

Their company is called Walk with path and their product goes by the name of Pathfinder. This is a rubber strap that can be fitted to a shoe. On the tip of the shoe there is a light that shows you where to go. Easy, even essential, for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Pape told Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner of Research, Science and Innovation. “People with Parkinson’s disease suffer from the condition called freeze. They feel like they are glued to the spot and as a result are unable to walk any further.”

Freeze

One way to overcome the freeze is to place an obstacle in front of the foot, says Pape. “Then they just step over it and keep on walking.”

She figured this out when her own father, now 73 years old, got Parkinson’s as well. In order to help him, she put her foot in front of his so that he could step over it. She discovered that the focus of her father’s eye on an object in front of, or on his foot, led him to being able to carry on walking whenever he was plagued by a sudden bout of freeze.

Light

A tiny light that is attached to a rubber strap which can be placed on the tip of the shoe also provides that same kind of focus. Pape and Burke developed their product in collaboration with Bas Bloem, Professor of Neurology at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. The product is on the market since 2017.

€250,000

Two other start-ups that help older people stay mobile for longer received €250,000 each. One of them is the Swiss Myo Suit. The product’s inventor, Kai Schmidt, studied mechanical engineering. Yet after his grandmother got a new hip replacement and could only walk with a walker, he thought that there had to be a better way to allow her to walk. That’s why he started to focus on the development of this medical-technical product.

Plastic skeleton

He came up with a robotic suit that she can wear. It consists of a plastic skeleton that goes around the hips and legs and is powered by a battery that the user carries in a backpack. The skeleton is light, however, the battery isn’t, says Schmidt. It may be useful for people with all kinds of conditions if they want to boost their muscular strength.

Kai Schmidt in his plastic skeleton

Doctor as the deputy mayor

The third winner, who was also given €250,000 to invest in their company, was Mob4seniors from Toulouse, France. They created a digital map that makes it easy for the elderly to take part in local community activities. “Healthy and social,” according to the inventors. They were supported by their deputy mayor, who is not only a public administrator and politician, but also a doctor. That is what helped them, they said to the Commissioner.

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