Fiona Kalensky combines tech and health care in startup

Emily Scott
5/4/2017

Fiona Kalensky always had a tough time deciding whether she wanted to study nursing or engineering. Coming from a family of nurses and engineers, she had always been torn between the two. 

Two years ago, as a biology major at the University of Illinois, she began a design project for a student group, Design for America, where she was given two words to investigate: caregiver fatigue

Those two words launched a project that would later develop into Therapalz, a startup she co-founded while still a student that makes smart therapeutic companion animals to benefit the care of individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia. 

Therapalz was recently selected as a finalist in the 2017 Cozad New Venture Competition, which encourages students on the University of IIlinois campus to create new businesses. 

Kalensky, now a junior, said launching a startup that merges technology and health care led her to transfer into the Department of ISE to major in Systems and Engineering Design (SED)

“What drew me into (systems and engineering design) was actually working on Therapalz,” Kalensky said. “I felt that I needed to push myself and have a better foundation of understanding the technology behind how things work.”

Understanding the technology has been key in her role with Therapalz. She was involved in the development of their prototype: a stuffed animal retrofitted with a constant heartbeat that can also detect touch and respond to it with a vibration or a purr. Their product is meant to be an alternative to medication or to companion animal therapy, which can be costly.

Kalensky remembers one specific interview where she was talking to a woman whose husband had been diagnosed with dementia. Throughout the interview, he would become agitated and begin to wander around the room, leading the woman to have to get up and tend to him.

“It wasn’t until they had this tiny little Yorkie that came into the room and hopped up onto his lap that he calmed down completely, and his demeanor changed,” Kalensky said. “So we started to look into how we can mimic the sensations of animal assisted therapy for people who aren’t necessarily able to add on another responsibility for caring for an animal.”

Through research and demos, Kalensky and her team have seen how their product helps individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia to calm down or even verbalize. They believe that their product could also help individuals with autism, those who are on bed rest, or even for those in hospice care. 

Being able to meet with users has been the most rewarding part of Kalensky’s startup experience. 

“I think that’s where I get the nursing side of things, in being able to actually interact with the individuals who have Alzheimer’s and dementia and the caregiving staffs,” she said. 

At the same time, she said she has enjoyed learning about the University’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and the business side of startup operations ever since Therapalz was accepted into the iVenture Accelerator, the University’s educational accelerator for student startups. 

Kalensky said she never thought she would go into entrepreneurship, which has made for an eye-opening experience. 

“We had a speaker who came in the first day and said entrepreneurship is like jumping off a cliff and trying to assemble your parachute on the way down. That is the truest statement,” she said with a laugh. “But once you catch the bug, you’re constantly looking for new ideas or new ways to improve on things.” 

For now, she and her team will continue make changes on the product and do demo testing on at nursing homes. Their goal is to release a minimum viable product by spring 2017.

Kalensky believes her coursework in SED will benefit these diverse roles she now finds herself in. 

Although the courses I am taking challenge me, they have been very beneficial in providing a framework that allows me to approach problems in a new way,” she said. 

She hopes to continue with Therapalz and with entrepreneurship into her career, and continues to be encouraged by the interactions she has with users.

“Every day I feel like there’s a new application that pops up. We’ve been getting a lot of traction lately; we had caregivers, one from Australia, one from New York, who had heard about what we’re doing and who reached out about purchasing one,” she said. “It’s been really helpful and nice to have that verification of what you’re doing.”

FOR FURTHER READING: "Wired In." The News-Gazette.

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