Pitt Innovator Jon Pearlman Finds Inspiration for Making Life Better for Individuals with Disabilities Close to Home
By Michael Yeomans
Jonathan Pearlman paused before pulling the trigger on beginning his PhD studies at the Pitt School of Health and Rehabilitation Science’s world renowned Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL).
He had progressed in a traditional mechanical engineering track as an undergraduate at the University of California Berkeley and earning a master’s at Cornell.
Pearlman was motivated by his father, who is a wheelchair user, to want his research to ultimately make an impact in people’s lives. He decided that would be better accomplished at Pitt.
In choosing HERL in 2003, he knew that making a real world impact was not only encouraged, it was expected.
“Translating research is a primary focus at HERL, and that is what clinched it for me,” he said.
Pearlman, now Associate Professor, joined the HERL faculty upon earning his PhD in 2007, and became the Associate Director of Engineering where he oversees what he calls “an amazing” shop where the lab’s innovations are prototyped and tested in the lower level of HERL’s facilities in the Bakery Square development in East Liberty.
Imparting a Passion for Entrepreneurship
Pearlman has spent the past decade developing a slew of innovations on wheelchair design and other devices and systems to help the disabled lead safer, happier, healthier, and more productive lives, while also mentoring students in his lab and helping them discover their entrepreneurial potential.
“It has been exciting to witness the changing potential career outlook for our students,” he said. “Before it was always assumed that they would go to an established company after earning their degree or into a faculty position. Now more than ever, launching or joining a startup is a viable option and we as faculty have more experience in guiding them in that direction.”
One of those students was Eric Sinagra, who was part of Pearlman’s team that helped develop a system for mapping sidewalks in urban areas for wheelchair accessibility. Sinagra, with assistance from the Innovation Institute, transitioned from researcher to entrepreneur to license the technology he helped create and launch a startup called pathVu, where he is the CEO.
pathVu has recently received several grants to continue its development:
- A Federal Highway Administration grant to develop a wayfinding app for people with disabilities to understand the most accessible pedestrian routes;
- An SBIR grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research for development of algorithms that use smartphone sensor data to detect adverse conditions for wheelchair users; and
- A Transportation Research Board grant for testing its pedestrian wayfinding app with end users.
“Without Dr. Pearlman’s research, pathVU would have never started,” Sinagra said. “We were driving back from a meeting discussing career options one day and he suggested, ‘Why not start a company?’ The skills I learned as his student in engineering, design and product development prepared me for launching pathVu.”
Jonathan Duvall, another PhD student in Pearlman’s lab, who was also on the original pathVu team, has also helped translate another idea initially conceived by Pearlman into a startup. The technology, previously under the name of E-scale, is a platform for weighing people with mobility impairments as they lay in bed and was licensed out of the university last year. Duvall, himself a wheelchair user, isn’t taking this idea out of the university himself, but he doesn’t rule that out in the future.
“The biggest thing that I have learned from Dr. Pearlman is that it’s not enough to just design and test a device. For anything we develop to be successful, we have to make sure that there is a business model that works and we have to follow through with the commercialization process to get it into the customer’s hands,” he said.
“In academia research, there is a saying that if it wasn’t published, it didn’t happen. Dr. Pearlman taught me that if a device doesn’t get to market, it wasn’t designed. In my future career, I’ll always keep that in mind and be thinking about the commercialization of any product I am developing from the initial concept.”
A changing mindset around impact through commercialization at Pitt
Pearlman said that while the innovations that he develops often have an initial focus on assisting people with disabilities, they can also be platforms for the general population. pathVu, for example, has its eye on applications for pedestrian safety and the E-scale technology could help address issues of sleep quality, trip and fall risk for the elderly and preventing bedsores in hospital and nursing home settings.
Pearlman has noticed in his time at Pitt that recognition of translational impact of research has grown.
“There is a higher sense of importance for the reputation of the University to ensure that research makes the leap from the academic realm to the market, and the process has gotten smoother with the addition of resources available through the Innovation Institute and across campus,” he said.
“Instead of us going to them, the Innovation Institute now comes to us with their entrepreneurs in residence and our licensing manager George Coulston,” he said.
Numerous innovation teams from HERL have come through the Innovation Institute’s First Gear commercialization program, where they receive $3,000 via the NSF I-Corps program to conduct customer discovery exercises and work one-on-one with an experienced business mentor to flesh out the innovation’s value proposition. Several First Gear teams have gone on to receive I-Corps team grants of $50,000 from NSF to perform more extensive customer discovery.
Pearlman said having gone through the innovation commercialization process several times has helped shape his approach to research.
“I go into my research thinking if I solve a problem, what are the potential market opportunities and am able to discover those opportunities much earlier than I did earlier in my career,’ he said.
Pointing to the recent Brookings Institute report “Capturing the next economy: Pittsburgh’s rise as a global innovation city” Pearlman said further translating Pittsburgh’s research prowess into economic opportunity will determine the region’s future as much or more than whether the city is successful in luring Amazon’s second headquarters location.
For Pitt to continue on its upward trajectory of innovation commercialization, Pearlman said he would like to see the reward system for innovators tweaked to better incentivize investigators to work collaboratively to solve problems. If that happens, he said, the opportunities for collaboration at Pitt are endless.
“When we were looking at a potential weight loss intervention for the E-Scale system I had the resource of world class collaborators in that space right here at Pitt,” he said. “To the degree that we are able to take advantage of our amazing capabilities and spur collaboration, there is no limit to the amount of impact we can have in Pittsburgh and in the world at large.”
Pearlman’s latest endeavor is spinning out the International Society of Wheelchair Professionals (ISWP) as a global non-profit organization. He currently serves as the Director of the ISWP, which has been incubated at Pitt for three years through a $3 million grant from USAID. ISWP will serve as a channel for translational research and global collaboration to support and expand appropriate wheelchair provision to the 65 Million people in need globally. Product testing standards, competency exams, and training tools are the first items to be licensed by ISWP from Pitt.