An Alma company that began with a desire to make handicap-accessible toys during the late 1980s has turned into a company on the forefront of innovation for people with severe disabilities and this year, InvoTek celebrates 25 years in business.
According to Barret Ewing, chief engineer at InvoTek, the company started with a focus on handicap accessible toys, in addition to voice-dialing telephones and augmentative communication devices before transitioning to a computer-focused business, working with disabled individuals to get them access to the rest of the world through innovative technologies.
Those innovations include computers that can be controlled by paralyzed individuals who are only able to move their head. As described on the company’s website, the AccuPoint product is “a movement tracking system that enables a user to control a computer with a wide range of movements – from very small to very large – while distinguishing tremors from intentional movements.”
Ewing said creating a specialized device that allows paraplegics easy access to the Internet and a way to type messages was just one of many innovations to come to the company since its founding in 1988, giving people access to a better quality of life.
“It’s a huge deal for quality of life because if you can’t (drive) around in your own wheelchair … at least (you can have) access to some of the stuff that you used to be able to do,” he said.
But it is not just surfing the Internet or using a computer that InvoTek engineers focus on. Ewing, said the company tries to work within its product line of about seven products but has the ability to customize any of its products for individual clients.
“You can’t build something that works for everybody. So when we walk in there, none of our devices are like, ‘Oh, this will make Allison use the computer,’ or help Allison use the computer, so the idea that we can go through and get research grants and come up with these products is great for the majority of spinal cord injuries and they’re great products to have as tools to support these people. But if we were to go into somebody’s house, if we were to send them that device, send them a head tracking system, she would never be successful with it,” Ewing said as he spoke of a client who does not have much movement of her head, but is able to move a joy stick using her foot.
Erik Jakobs, the son of co-founders Tom and Diane Jakobs, said all sorts of different methods are tested with clients to determine what will work best for them.
“It really just depends on their abilities and we’ll try things,” he said. “We never get it right the first time. We bring things out and let them tell us in the way that they can what they want changed but we kind of have to start with an initial idea.”
But accomplishing some of the innovations that have resulted in three patents for the company and six for co-founder Tom Jakobs does not come cheap to a company focusing on specialty niche products. As a result, Erik Jakobs said during the 25 year history of the company, InvoTek has been the recipient of more than $5.4 million in research grants.
Ewing added that it was partially due to the grant money that engineers like him were able to stay on staff and continue working on new technologies.
The elder Jakobs, who was unavailable for an interview, said on the company’s website that partnerships with leading research universities such as Duke and Penn State were also responsible for the company being able to stay in business 25 years.
“We owe much of our success to the strategic partnerships we’ve formed with researchers from leading academic institutions, rehabilitation professionals and others who share one common goal: to improve the lives of people who live with disabilities.”
So what is next for a company that has opened up the world to people who had been facing a life confined to a wheelchair or bed?
The company in 2010 launched the non-profit Be Extraordinary, which Ewing said works with disabled individuals to not just be equipped with the company’s technology, but to also set a goal and achieve it. According to Ewing, more than 80% of Be Extraordinary’s 23 clients have achieved or are actively working toward their goals, with many of the goals involving education, such as finishing high school or college.
InvoTek is also working to make touch-screen computing a reality for paralyzed individuals through the use of Bluetooth technology.
“Right now, the push is tablets and so with the iPad and all the Droid devices that are out there, the big push is how do we get people into these tablets that don’t have a way to touch them? It’s a tricky area because tablets were designed to be touched.”
But Ewing said as with everything else accomplished during InvoTek’s 25 years, he expects tablets to be used among paraplegics on a regular basis in the near future, just in time for the company to start working on its next innovation.
“Being in the field we’re in, it’s tough because technology is changing so fast.”