McMaster student Canada's pick for international design competition with 'guided hands' innovation

An innovation that will allow people with limited hand mobility to write, use a touch screen, paint or draw, has earned its creator, a 21-year-old McMaster student, an international design award.

Lianna Genovese will next compete against finalists from 28 countries and regions

Lianna Genovese Guided Hands assistive device is shown here helping someone use a tablet. (Lianna Genovese)

An innovation that will allow people with limited hand mobility to write, use a touch screen, paint or draw, has earned its creator, a 21-year-old McMaster student, top marks as part of an international design competition.

Lianna Genovese has been chosen as Canada's national winner of the 2021 James Dyson Awards with her assistive device called Guided Hands, the James Dyson Foundation announced Wednesday. She will now go up against national finalists from 28 countries and regions in the next stage of the international competition in October. 

The mechanical assisted device was originally prototyped in one of her first-year courses. Now, as Genovese heads into her final year of the integrated biomedical engineering and health sciences program, she is also running her own business, ImaginAble Solutions, and is set to launch pre-orders for the Guided Hands device at the end of August.

Genovese was only 18 years old when she created the first version of the assisted device in a course that "introduces students to engineering design in the biomedical engineering fields," said Colin McDonald, associate director of the biomedical engineering and health sciences program. 

It was in McDonald's course Genovese made her first version of Guided Hands. 

"This award is a credit to Lianna's drive, ambition and her willingness to get uncomfortable," McDonald said. 

"To think that she went from a first-year student who was doing this as a part of a course, to starting her own company based off of that idea and going on to win national and international awards, it's just remarkable," he said, "and it's all been done as she has been involved full time in a very rigorous program."

Early inspiration

As part of the design projects for that first-year course, students worked with clients in the community. 

Genovese met Elissa, a woman living with dystonia, a rare form of cerebral palsy, after she came to the class. 

"She did a presentation… about things that she could do and things that she couldn't do as a result of her medical condition," Genovese said.

"She mentioned that she had a hard time cooking, a hard time doing the buttons on her shirt, a hard time writing, but the one thing that really stood out to me was that she had a really difficult time painting and that she was a talented painter. As her condition progressed, she wasn't even able to hold on to a paintbrush."

Genovese said she saw a way a device could assist. "Not only does she lose her passion for painting, but she also lost her independence, her creativity and her confidence," Genovese said, "I wanted to focus on giving her back what she loves and really enhancing her quality of life."
Lianna Genovese is shown here (right) with Elissa, the woman who inspired her Guided Hands device. (Lianna Genovese)

Persistence, and multiple attempts

Genovese said her design was modeled after the mechanics of a 3D printer, with "a person's hand as the nozzle of the 3D printer that's able to move in all directions.

"I had a really difficult time putting what was in my head on paper and sketches, so I went straight to prototyping," she said.

Using a cabinet full of school supplies, Genovese made the first design out of materials like pipe cleaners, straws, sponges, cardboard and glue. After a few more design attempts using things like clothes hangers and other "crazy materials," Genovese said she had a list of people testing these first few prototypes for her.

Finally, she found one that worked. "Elissa loved it and she was able to paint again," she said.

A business concept was born

After presenting the design at a conference in Toronto, where it won a national award, Genovese was encouraged to keep iterating. 

Last summer,  she completed a co-op where she worked half the time on other projects, and the rest of the time developing what would become the final version of her device, though not before a lot more testing. 

"I made a list of every single hospital, clinic, rehab center, nursing home and retirement home in Hamilton, since that's where I've grown up, and at the time I didn't own a car, so I bussed across Hamilton to all these different places and I introduced it to over 150 patients and physicians," Genovese said.

One girl named Bella, who has cerebral palsy and who Genovese met at McMaster's Children's hospital, tried the device out. 

"Since she was a little girl, I brought painting supplies," Genovese said. "As soon as she began painting, the widest smile spread across her face. She turned to her mom and said, "Mom, I want one," and then the mom turned to me and asked how much it was," Genovese recalled.

"In that moment, I knew I found my passion and I realized the potential that Guided Hands had to change people's lives. Also, that moment was when I realized that this is not just a school project anymore, this is an invention that can change the lives of so many people."


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