Engineering Student’s First-Year Project Is Lending A Hand

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Lianna Genovese

By: Fiona Lam
Lianna Genovese, a 3rd-year McMaster engineering student, has grown her first-year undergraduate project into a burgeoning business that is helping individuals with accessibility issues find independence and opportunity.

Armed with paint supplies and her passion project, Guided Hands, 3rd-year McMaster engineering student Lianna Genovese joined a 12-year-old girl and her family at their doctor’s appointment in the summer of 2019. The young girl has dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that causes involuntary muscle contractions. The condition causes her fingers to curl inwards, making it painful and difficult to do day-to day activities and participate in school. Lianna was hoping that Guided Hands, an assistive device that helps individuals with medical conditions affecting basic hand function, would help alleviate some of her struggles.

Guided Hands has an ergonomic handpiece tailored to the individual’s medical condition and a wrist rest, both of which move along a sliding rack. Attached to the gripping ball is an adjustable holder that can fit a variety of utensils such as pens, pencils, markers, paintbrushes, and styluses. This design helps the user outstretch their fingers and reduces their hand fatigue.

As the girl began to paint using Lianna’s device, a beaming smile spread wide across her face. She immediately turned to her mom and said, “I want one.” At that point, the idea of selling her avocation had never even crossed her mind. Inspired by this girl, Lianna decided to start her own business and commit to enhancing the quality of life of individuals with accessibility issues.

“This is what I want to do. I want to connect with patients. I want to be beside them and ask them: ‘What do you need? How can I make your everyday better?’ As an engineer, that’s amazing because I can create something for them,” said Lianna.

Guided Hands continues to support the education of the 12-year-old girl who uses it for her math and painting classes. Its impact has now expanded to enable independence and opportunities for a myriad of individuals in local hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and rehabilitation clinics.

This explosive journey began as a humble final project during Lianna’s first year in McMaster’s Integrated Biomedical Engineering & Health Science undergraduate program. Her class was challenged to design a tool for a woman with dystonia. Like the 12-year-old girl, she had difficulty performing basic tasks like cooking, writing, and painting, an activity she loved.

While many of her classmates decided to code an app or build a 3D-model, Lianna, along with two of her classmates, chose to construct a tangible device. Out of all 40 teams, they were the only ones that targeted the woman’s passion for painting. They continually tested their designs with her throughout the process and eventually developed the prototype that was to become Guided Hands. It was one of the woman’s favorite designs as she could paint without tiring her forearm and hand.

Lianna Genovese with the woman who inspired the original idea for Guided Hands

Upon the encouragement of their professor, they submitted their design in the 2018 Innovative Design for Accessibility student competition and won the 1st place prize of $2000. The positive feedback from numerous colleagues, professors, and business professionals encouraged Lianna to continue pursuing this project and help others with similar conditions.

With support from the McMaster Manufacturing Research Institute where she interned the next summer, Lianna began to turn her rough Home-Depot-built model into a finalized product. The institute graciously allowed her to spend half her days working on Guided Hands and funded her research and product development costs.

Lianna manufactured Guided Hands using CNC machines during her internship at McMaster Manufacturing Research Institute. 

Lianna spent her nights making hundreds of phone calls to research centers, hospitals, and doctors and brought Guided Hands around nursing and retirement homes, rehabilitation clinics, and doctors for people to test. She received soaring feedback from people with various medical conditions using her device. Although Guided Hands was built specifically for individuals with dystonia, Lianna realized that it could help hundreds of different conditions including arthritis, ALS, Huntington’s disease, strokes, and spinal cord injuries.

In July 2019, Lianna founded her company, ImaginAble Solutions. Having had no interest in business all her life, Lianna never imagined entrepreneurship to be an option. But with the dream of turning Guided Hands into a career, she became a client at the Innovation Factory, a Hamilton business accelerator, and attended the startup school at the Forge, McMaster’s business incubator.

In October 2019, ImaginAble Solutions won the People’s Choice Award at the Innovation Factory Pitch Night

The demands of running a one-woman company while juggling a full engineering course load can get overwhelming. “It’s been kind of a bumpy ride. But I’m always learning. Everyday, I’m learning,” Lianna said. Lianna receives excellent support and guidance from the aforementioned business networks and organizations like the McMaster Manufacturing Research Institute and Hamilton Health Sciences which help manufacture and test her device, respectively.

“I’m always learning. Everyday, I’m learning.”

Lianna credits her interest in STEM to her high school teachers. Her prior indifference towards math and physics was radically transformed by her biology and physics teacher whose enthusiasm created a passion for not only Lianna but all of their students. “It’s the foundation you get from your teachers. They’re shaping you into the student you’re going to be in university,” she said.

With just two more years of her undergraduate degree left, Lianna is working hard to finish strong so she can focus on Guided Hands and expand ImaginAble Solutions, “a company I can continue building by providing devices or other technology to solve accessibility issues,” said Lianna. What was once a modest undergraduate first-year final project has blossomed into a deeply impactful product and company that has and will continue to change the lives of many. “I definitely found my passion and I’m so happy I did.”

Fiona Lam is the Associate Digital Marketing Analyst at Pearson Canada.

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