Wired In: Isak Massman

Wired In: Isak Massman

Each week, staff writer PAUL WOOD chats with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet ISAK MASSMAN, who co-founded Therapalz with fellow University of Illinois student FIONA KALENSKY. The start-up is creating therapeutic robotic stuffed animals for individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia and children with autism-spectrum disorders. The stuffed animals are outfitted with custom electronics so when a patient pets the stuffed animal, it outputs vibrations and a heartbeat to calm and comfort users. Therapalz is working with behavioral health clinics in the Chicago area to pilot animals with clients in the fall.

Whom is your company trying to help now?

After receiving emails and mentions from the parents of children with autism-spectrum disorders, Therapalz has started creating Therapal animals that calm children with ASDs, in addition to our earlier focus on primarily older adults with memory disorders.

And you recently won the St. Louis University "Real" Elevator Pitch Competition ($2,500). What's is an elevator pitch, anyway?

It's a 30- to 60-second explanation of the problem your start-up is solving, how you are doing it, and whom it helps. The pitch at St. Louis University happened in a real elevator!

What else is going on with Therapalz?

We were named one of "10 Illinois Student Startups Set to Make Moves in 2017" by ChicagoInno, were nominated by the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation for their Entrepreneurial Excellence: Student Startup Award, won the AbbVie Prize in the 2017 UIUC Cozad New Venture Competition, and got 2nd in the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation's InnovateHer Business Challenge. And most important of all, we worked with 50 new users with memory disorders in the Champaign-Urbana area.

Where is your physical space?

We are currently working out of the iVenutre Accelerator as an Alumni Team (iVenture provides us with work space, mentors, and workshops), focusing on going through the FDA approval process and working with manufacturers and designers to begin producing our animals by the end of 2017. We are also working with angel investors to ensure that Therapalz will be able to continue to put Therapal animals in the hands of individuals who need them the most.

How did you get the idea to start the company?

In 2015, we started looking for individuals in the community who were not always the center of attention for newly developed products. We went out into the community and interviewed individuals with disabilities and their caregivers (if they had them). In one interview, we spoke with a woman and her husband, who had Alzheimer's. The husband was restless during the interview; he appeared to be anxious and kept attempting to get out of his chair. Then his Corgie came and jumped up in his lap. He started petting and talking to the dog, and completely calmed down. He was even able to talk to us a little bit. From that interview, we saw there was a connection between the man and his dog, and we thought we could replicate it. After that, our first prototype was an old cellphone inside of a stuffed animal. We would call it when we wanted the prototype to "interact" with a user. We eventually moved to prototyping with more specific electronic components to refine the feature we were attempting to mimic. In the spring of 2016, we entered the UIUC Cozad New Venture Competition and won our way into the iVenture Accelerator with $10,000 in seed funding. In iVenture we solidified out business plan and technology to ensure that we can bring joy and happiness to as many users as possible.

What interests you the most right now?

The lack of "playing by the rules" by a lot of millennials. Our generation is finding interesting ways to support ourselves while making a positive impact and not accepting typical 9 to 5 jobs or office culture. I can't wait to see what we have accomplished by the time we're 50.

How did you become an entrepreneur?

My first pseudo-entrepreneurial gig was mowing lawns and doing landscaping in my neighborhood during middle and high school. I averaged $140 a week during the summer. In college, my personal connection with memory disorders has made Therapalz a perfect fit.

Why did you choose this business?

Growing up I watched my grandmother, Mormor for any Swedish readers, struggle with dementia. She always had her personality despite the loss of her short-term memory, but by the time I was 18 she had trouble remembering my name. Although she was never able to use a Therpal, I know one of our dogs would have comforted her when she was feeling stressed or anxious. I think about my experience as a loved one affected by a memory disorder every day I work on Therapalz.

What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?

Stick with it. And if you are going to pivot, make sure you have the best possible reason for doing so.

What's in the future for your company?

We are currently preparing for our first manufacturing run, and our market release (hopefully) in April of 2018. We are also exploring ways to create a more personal relationship with a Therapal for each user. This includes developing ways to "synch" the Therapal to the activities and therapies that are common with our two distinct user groups.


Do you have a favorite thing to follow on social media, or an app you really love? Strava. I use it to track my bike rides around CU and compete with friends on segments. On Facebook I follow a lot of design and branding oriented blogs, as well as a news-aholic amount of press coverage.

What are you reading right now? I just finished Ben Horowitz's "The Hard Thing About Hard Things." It reads a bit like a startup management manual and I absolutely loved it. I just started Jenny Blake's "Pivot" to hone my planning skills.

Do you have any wearable electronics? Nope.

Do you have an entrepreneur hero? Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. I keep a copy of his book "Let My People Go Surfing" on my desk. It's a reminder that there a lot more important things in life than just making money.

Sections (2):News, Business
Topics (2):Internet, Technology

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aantulov wrote on July 25, 2017 at 7:07 am

A wonderful idea.  Now perhaps we can work towards ending the presense of dogs on planes!

mikefitzvw wrote on July 25, 2017 at 9:07 am

Great job Isak!