URI engineering student creates smart T-shirt to regulate heavy lifting

Marjorie Pickard wins third place at startup contest

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URI students Marjorie Pickard, Brandon Antezana and Scott Barlow. Photo by URI Director for Entrepreneurship Deedee Chatham.

KINGSTON, R.I., Nov. 6, 2017—A University of Rhode Island engineering student wants to teach people the right way to lift heavy objects.

Actually, her shirt does.

Marjorie Pickard is the co-creator of a smart T-shirt that has the ability to detect improper lifting techniques and is so promising it won a top award at a recent startup contest.

Sensors in the shirt—appropriately called SmartShirt—measure movements of the spine and shoulders, then send feedback through a smartphone application.

While everyone could benefit from heavy-lifting advice, Pickard says the shirt she developed with a classmate is tailored to factory and warehouse workers, who frequently lift heavy objects without guidance on the best forms and techniques.

Pickard wowed judges at the 12th annual RI Business Plan Elevator Pitch Competition Nov. 1 at the Tech Collective in Providence, winning third place among 34 contestants. Pickard received $100—and a boost of energy to take her shirt to the next level.

“It was really exciting to win,” says Pickard. “I was happy about the judges’ reaction to the project. They seemed generally enthused about the idea. Wearable tech is a booming field.”

Sponsored by the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition, the contest promotes entrepreneurship and development of startup companies in Rhode Island. The competitors—college students and entrepreneurs—had 90 seconds to convince the judges, all local business leaders, that their projects solved a problem and are commercially viable. Contestants were also evaluated on preparation and enthusiasm.

A URI graduate student and URI professor were runner-ups. Linden Wyatt was recognized for his startup Optera Diagnostics, which is developing an instrument to analyze human tissue biopsies faster. Wyatt received his doctorate in physics from URI last July and will graduate with a master in business administration in December.

And Mindy Levine, associate professor of chemistry, was singled out for The Party Elements, a business she created that brings science parties to people of all ages, from preschool children to adults. The goal is to expand the business nationally.

The idea for SmartShirt came to Pickard and her classmate, Jeremy Doody, of Westfield, Mass., during their Wearable Internet of Things class taught by Kunal Mankodiya, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and director of URI’s Wearable Biosensing Laboratory.

A North Kingstown native on track to graduate in May, Pickard is majoring in electrical engineering and French through URI’s five-year International Engineering Program. Mankodiya asked Pickard to pitch the shirt project for the contest.

“Professor Mankodiya asked us to design a wearable item that could solve a problem and help people,” says Pickard. “At first, we thought about weightlifters, then Kunal steered us toward factory workers because that’s a larger market and there are fewer devices available.”

The tight-fitting shirt is a synthetic-cotton blend. Four sensors, which bend with body movements, are stitched into the shirt along the spine. Eventually, sensors will be installed on the shoulders.

The plastic sensors curve as the worker moves. Signals are sent to a microcontroller in the shirt. That microcontroller analyzes the sensors’ messages to determine if the body movements are safe for heavy lifting.

“From the microcontroller, the information is also sent to a smartphone application,” says Pickard. “When workers have bad form they can find out about it on their cell phone. Employers can also receive the data.”

The goal is to reduce the number of work-related back injuries, says Pickard. This, in turn, could decrease the number of workers’ compensation claims, saving companies money.

Pickard and Doody are still working on a prototype that they expect to complete by the end of December. In time, they hope to seek a patent for the project.

The future looks bright. A judge in the contest who owns a workers’ compensation insurance firm told Pickard he was keen on the shirt.

“That was definitely exciting,” says Pickard. “It made me think about the possibilities of the device as more than a class project. Everything I’ve learned over the past five years is being applied to a real-life problem, and that’s fulfilling.”