The brains behind the Puffin, Adriana is a pioneer and early adopter of many assistive technologies. She is an advocate for people with disabilities and for the expanded use of assistive technology, with several years of experience in the non-profit sector, as well as volunteering through mentoring programs, task forces, and fundraising events. Adriana also guest lectures/speaks at Northeastern University and Boston University PT and OT/AT classes respectively, and serves on the Board of Directors of Easter Seals Massachusetts.
When we speak with founders, we often found that an “aha!” moment or realization kickstarted their journey. Was that the case for you?
I think I’ve had a few “aha moments,“ each one sparking the next leg of my journey. I was born with cerebral palsy and at a really young age, my occupational therapist introduced me to assistive technology. I was only about seven years old, this was in the mid-80s, and it was the first time I had experienced being able to do anything on my own. I became hooked on technology because I quickly realized that this was how I could be as independent as possible. Throughout my life, I was always interested in trying out the latest gadgets and coming up with different ways of helping myself and others like myself to be more independent. I always wanted to work in the field of assistive technology and I always imagined working for a company developing tools or improving upon current technologies for people with disabilities. Three years ago, when I was given the opportunity to submit an idea to the MIT Assistive Tech Hackathon (ATHack) I jumped at it and I was one of fourteen that was accepted to participate. On the day of the hack, we won first place. It was there Puffin was born.
For our readers who may not have ever had the opportunity to interact with your product, can you explain how it works and what sets it apart?
At the Hackathon, Puffin was designed to be a wireless sip-and-puff input device that allowed one to interact with their consumer electronics, such as their mobile devices and computers. I wanted this design in particular because I love to travel, but I am unable to bring all of my assistive technology with me and feel disconnected from my devices and such. The original version was a sip-and-puff joystick that could be operated by mouth. Since then, we’ve been funded by the VA and have participated in MassChallenge, which has allowed us to create a whole new device. It is no longer a sip-and-puff; we will continue to make sip-and-puff devices for those who need it, but we are incorporating new and more advanced technology.
How have these assistive technologies empowered you in your daily life?
It was only about ten years ago that I was able to turn on my lights, operate my TV, and open my door — silly little things like that — by myself, and that was a big deal for me. When you have to rely on others for every aspect of your life, which basically I have to, the small things really matter. Any type of control that you can have over your life is a big deal, for instance having full control of my mobile phone and access to apps such as Lyft and Uber. About a month ago, a friend of mine happened to be in town for 24 hours, she texted me asking if I wanted to meet up. If this had been four or five years ago, I would not have been able to say yes and use my phone to get a Lyft and meet with her or call my PCA and let them know I was going to be home later than expected. People with disabilities who rely on others for their daily living activities have very scheduled lives and it’s little things like that that make a difference.
What do you find most exciting or rewarding about the work you are doing?
What is most exciting and rewarding is that I know that what we’re working to do will help so many people become more integrated into communities, and obtain better educational and employment opportunities. I know many people within the disability community that don’t have a cell phone simply because they physically can’t use one. For them, this will be a game changer because once you have access to your mobile device, you basically have access to the world. Not only will this give them the freedom to make plans with friends as they choose, it will give them the opportunity to control their environment and the world around them. This will open up so many doors of opportunity for people that I know and that is what excites me the most.
What is one thing you wish you knew when you first started your journey as an entrepreneur?
I wish I had known what prior art was. When we won the AT Hackathon, we got a lot of press and there were tons of interviews — we even made it into the NY Times. We didn’t realize that someone had literally copied our idea pretty much down to the language I had used when describing what we were doing. I wish I had realized that we shouldn’t have been so open with what we were doing. As a result, we created an entirely different product. But it was never on our radar that this would happen.
Did you ever see yourself doing what you’re doing now?
It had always been a dream of mine to work in the field of assistive technology; I always imagined working for a company helping them develop ideas. I never thought I’d have my own company and a team bringing my ideas to life. It’s still hard to believe that my dream has become reality.
As a Changemaker, what impact do you ultimately hope to make collectively with your Puffin team or personally?
As a team, we hope not only to change people’s lives by using technology but also hope to change people’s mindsets. In this day and age, the modern workforce is the first real workforce where anyone can participate in, whether you have a disability or not. This is the technology age and if you can use a computer or a tablet, you can work. Access to the technology is only half of the problem. The other half is people’s mindset; the idea that people with disabilities are not capable of doing those same jobs. Our goal is not only to provide the tools that give people access but also help remove the stigma surrounding people with disabilities.
Want to connect with Adriana Mallozzi and learn more about Puffin yourself? Follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.
The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.