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The Quest for the Vest
Innovation helps kids with autism
UMass alumni and entrepreneurs Brian Mullen and Chris Leidel.

Sensory technology like the Vayu vest could be potentially useful in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder and other types of anxiety disorders.

When Brian Mullen graduated in 2004 as a mechanical engineer, he opted to continue on to graduate school so he could pursue his interest in assistive medical technology. “I wanted to make prosthetic limbs to help soldiers returning from Iraq,” he says.

Several friends had enlisted or been called to National Guard duty, “but the military wasn’t quite for me, and rather than making bombs, which is what a lot of mechanical engineers do, I thought I would go on the other side, which is just as important. With new technology a lot of soldiers are being saved on the battlefield, but they are coming home with more serious injuries.” Seven years, a master’s degree, and PhD later, his focus is still on assistive technology, but instead of soldiers, he is helping children. He has designed and developed a vest that uses pressure to address the sensory needs of children with autism and related disorders.

The shift in direction came about shortly after Mullen entered his master’s degree program at UMass Amherst. He was looking for a project when he met Tina Champagne, an occupational therapist in the acute mental health care facility at Cooley Dickenson Hospital in Northampton. Champagne was looking to reduce the use of restraints for severe behaviors, and she was interested in work done by Mullen’s advisor, Sundar Krishnamurty, on assistive technology for a local family with an autistic child. The child needed hugs and squeezes to help him to fall asleep at night, and the parents would put four or five blankets on him, even in the summer, to help him sleep. Champagne wanted to do more research and she was looking for a partner. Mullen thought it could be a good project for his master’s degree. “It could be interesting, completely different and new, but it was a long shot and a big risk for me,” he says. “I was going into this for two years and there really isn’t an industry for mechanical engineers in mental health care.”

Mullen found that while sensory-based intervention using deep pressure, firm hugs and squeezing was widely used for kids with autism, there wasn’t much research. “The data is mostly anecdotal,” he says, “from observations of children’s behavior, like squeezing themselves between cushions to create those hugs and pressure sensations.”

In somewhat of a cottage industry, parents were making their own weighted blankets and vests. You can go out and buy one for $500, but he says, “no one had ever done a study of the safety or efficacy of using a weighted blanket, either in typical people in a general setting, or with kids with autism.“ We did a series of studies and integrated the engineering aspect with the clinical research,” he says. The National Institutes of Health calls it going from bench to bedside and back, and that is what Mullen wanted to do—use the science to develop a tool, and get it into production as fast as possible. “After two years I decided to stay on and get a PhD,” he says. “There was clearly a lot left to do.”

In 2006 the Boston Globe featured Mullen’s research and the pressurized vest he had designed. People noticed and emails started pouring in. “It was great to have that feeling that your work could actually benefit someone someday,” he says. “It wasn’t just theoretical, it had practical application.”

Further validation came when a parent “came to my cubicle and told me what kind of impact this vest would have on her kid. She wanted me to make one for her,” he says. “It really pulled at my heart strings.” It was time to take the research and the vest and figure out how to get it to the people who could benefit. 

Mullen took his concept and company and entered the UMass Amherst Innovation Challenge under the name Therapeutic Systems. He made it all the way through the process, only to lose in the final competition.

“You can’t do it all by yourself,” he says. “I was a teaching assistant, getting my PhD, doing the clinical research, and trying to start this company.” The Innovation Challenge judges agreed, noting that he needed to bring in someone with more business background.

Mullen knew just the right person: Chris Leidel ’04, ’09G. They had been acquaintances as undergrads in the mechanical engineering program but Leidel went to work for Texas Instruments for a few years after graduating. He had returned to UMass Amherst to get his MBA and the two reconnected and formed their partnership. They went through a weeklong National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance program on entrepreneurship and received an NCIIA E-Team grant, an Entrepreneurial Spirit Award from the West Springfield-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation, an award from the UMass Entrepreneurship Initiative, and the following year entered and won the UMass Amherst Innovation Challenge and the $50,000 prize.

Both completed their academic pursuits, Mullen his PhD and Leidel his MBA, in 2009, and put together enough seed money to continue the initiative.

“Mentoring from Innovation Challenge judges was helpful and important,” says Mullen, as he and Leidel spent the next two years moving their vest from a concept to an actual product. They created a brand and gave their vest a name, Vayu, a reference to the Hindu wind god. They further defined their business model and plan, conducted market research, formed an advisory board, wrote papers and presented at occupational therapy conferences, and found a local medical device manufacturer, Dialectrics, in Chicopee, Mass., to partner with in developing prototypes and ultimately manufacturing the finished vest.

The Vayu was officially launched in the spring of 2011. At about the same time Mullen and Leidel entered, along with 732 other contestants, the 2011 Mass Challenge, an entrepreneurial start-up competition that promotes and supports innovation and entrepreneurship and awards $1 million in prize money. The competition is open to anyone from anywhere with any kind of start up. The original entrants are whittled down through two rounds of judging to 100 finalists who enter a three-month Accelerator Program where they are matched up with mentors and provided office and work space in Boston with access to resources that include presentations, panel sessions, interactive workshops, and one-on-one sessions with experts involved in all aspects and stages of building a business. The final judging round takes place in early October to select 26 award winners. Therapeutic Systems received $50,000 and was one of 17 teams to receive cash awards.

“The formal mentorship program and peer mentoring is awesome,” says Mullen. “We were sitting there with 125 teams across all industries, in the same building, all with their own expertise.”

“It was an energetic environment with a feeling of camaraderie,” adds Leidel.

“We are in the market now,” says Leidel. “We have gone ahead and launched it as a private paid medical device realizing that we limit our market, but knowing that our ultimate goal is to collect the data and run the studies that are required to obtain insurance coverage.”

“We are in a new emerging space with these sensory technologies,” says Mullen. “We want to learn more and help as much as we can.”

While Mullen and Leidel are fully concentrating on getting Vayu to the children it could help, they continue to keep an eye on the future. Mullen hasn’t lost his original desire to help soldiers and sees sensory technology being potentially useful in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder and other types of anxiety disorders.

Reprinted with permission, UMass Magazine Spring 2012