By Sarah Kelsey
When Andrea Palmer and her Awake Labs co-founder Paul Fijal conceived of a platform to measure anxiety in people with autism, she didn’t think it would be relevant to her personally. But that’s exactly what happened a few years later when she sustained a brain injury during wrestling practice.
The trauma of the takedown was so severe it impacted her cognitive function, which led to a decline in her mental health and well-being and a rise in her anxiety. Their platform wasn’t yet ready to help with her own recovery, but she certainly wishes it was.
“The platform wouldn’t have been able to heal my brain faster — it can’t physically do that — but it could have let me know when I was going to react to something negatively, helping me to manage my responses to situations” Andrea says. “It could have helped give me my quality of life back — and that’s what we want to do for other people.”
Awake Labs is a revolutionary app that’s connected to a smartphone and smartwatch that detects a person’s heart rate. Using a clinically validated algorithm licensed from Holland Bloorview, the app detects when stress and strong emotions are escalating and alerts a person or caregiver to the impending big emotion (fear, joy, anger, etc.) so they can intervene and support the person affected.
“Any big emotion, if left unchecked, can have a negative outcome. Sometimes, that big emotion will cause someone to completely withdraw and turn inward; sometimes it looks like an external outburst of aggression; other times, antipsychotic medication is administered,” she says. “Incidents like these can be disorienting and draining for everyone involved. They’re not good for those experiencing them or for those caring for them.”
“It could have helped give me my quality of life back — and that’s what we want to do for other people.”
Today, there are 300 individual users of the app, including almost 100 self-advocates and 30 agencies who use it with people they support. The agencies really value the platform. There are strict checks and balances when it comes to consent, and anyone who wants to stop using the tool can do so.
“Staff and caregivers report feeling more confidence in being able to support people because of our platform,” Andrea says. “It helps them know how to respond to an individual’s needs and helps them feel safe. Everyone can build a trust relationship quicker.”
It’s also begun to change the lives of adults with intellectual developmental disabilities.
One young woman who wants to live independently is using the tool to learn how to self-regulate her emotions so she can manage certain situations without a caregiver. In another case, a mother of a young autistic man — whose anxiety presents as self-harm and who gets overwhelmed by loud, busy environments — was able to host her first family event in years. The Awake Labs technology helped them recognize the early signs of big emotions and take steps to make everyone feel comfortable.
“When we get messages like these from our users, it’s very motivating,” Andrea says, noting she and her team are currently working on some pretty incredible new use cases for the platform. She acknowledges that many communities are often underdiagnosed and therefore overlooked, including women, people of colour, and people who can’t afford to get diagnosed. “It’s important to be aware of these inequities when providing our platform to our users.”
“I don’t know everything, and I will ask anyone who will listen to me to help me figure something out.”
The success stories are all pretty surreal for Andrea, especially because she says she went to university unsure of where her life would lead. “I wanted to be a math teacher, and my mom convinced me to try engineering… she said it was a good base for a career.” She ended up studying mechatronics, which eventually led to her acceptance into the prestigious New Venture Design course at UBC, designed for individuals who want to develop their creativity while learning about the business cycle of a startup. During the course, students are tasked with creating a product with a real-world use case. That’s how Awake Labs was born.
“The New Venture Design course really taught us to get up out of our chair and talk to people and to validate every assumption we had,” Andrea says. It taught her to seek out people who know more than her on a daily basis.
That’s partially how she stumbled upon ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided program, a six-month initiative that helps women-led companies scale their business through mentorship. She wanted to learn from those who’ve had success in the industry.
“I don’t know everything,” she says, “and I will ask anyone who will listen to me to help me figure something out.”
Andrea has also learned something that’s key for any owner of a company: perseverance. “Never be afraid to ask for what you need — the worst thing people will say is no, or they won’t respond,” she notes. “There will be sacrifices, and we probably survived because we continued to proceed and push through things when other companies with similar ideas to ours stopped.”
Andrea adds the key to continuing when the going gets tough is to stay laser focused on the benefits of what you’re trying to do. “We have the ability to change lives. That’s what really matters.”