The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Alums Market “Portable Hug” for Autistic Children

Therapeutic Systems, a company started by alumnus Brian Mullen when he was a doctoral student in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department in 2008, is producing an inflatable vest that offers a “portable hug” to help calm and soothe children with autism and other disorders. Mullen started the company with his partner Chris Leidel, who earned his MBA in the Isenberg School of Management, when the two put together a successful business plan to win the $50,000 University of Massachusetts Innovation Challenge. They work out of the Amherst Center for Entrepreneurship, a business incubator for UMass Amherst start-up businesses. The company was featured in a business story in the Springfield Republican on May 16.

Here’s the Republican story:

At 18, the high-functioning autistic Temple Grandin constructed a”squeeze machine” to help calm her anxiety. She got the idea after observing that cattle being held in a squeeze chute seemed to relax while waiting inline for veterinary attention.

A pair of Amherst entrepreneurs took Grandin’s idea and ran with it.

Last month, they introduced an inflatable vest that offers a “portable hug”to help calm and soothe children with autism and other disorders. Developed in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, the vest is called the Vayu, from the Hindi word for “air” or “wind.”

Its developers, Brian Mullen and business partner Chris Leidel, both graduated from UMass in 2009. Their company, Therapeutic Systems, is based at the Amherst Center for Entrepreneurship at 196 Pleasant St., an incubator for UMass start-ups.

The business took off in the spring of 2008, while Mullen was still working on his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and Leidel was working on an MBA at the Isenberg School of Management. The two graduate students put together a business plan and won the University of Massachusetts Innovation Challenge,which came with a $50,000 cash prize.

“With that we had some money to turn this into a business,” Mullen said. The pair hired a market research firm to survey potential customers about what sort of product they would like to see. “People wanted a deep pressure intervention that was easy to use with pressure that could be controlled.”

They started working with a local manufacturer, Dielectrics in Chicopee, which made the working prototype. “They were really kind to us, providing the fit and finish of an actual product,” Mullen said.

The vest wraps around the child, providing deep pressure on the back and lower trunk, providing a sense of being enveloped. “Like swaddling a baby,” Mullen explained.

With a soft black micro-fiber shell on the outside and mesh on the inside, the vests are cool and sleek and come in small, medium and large children’s sizes. The air bladder inside can be removed so the shell can be washed. A child can wear the vest all day, over or under a T-shirt, and inflate or deflate the pressure as needed.

Mullen said he knew early on he wanted to make biomedical devices that help people. “I could have made missiles, bombs and weapons - a few of my friends were called up to Iraq - or I could make something to help people when theygot back, like prosthetic limbs.

By serendipity, his adviser in graduate school had been working on aninflatable device to help a local parent who had a child with autism.

“She was using a bunch of blankets to give her child pressure,” he said. “It was an orphan project,” Leidel said. “Brian decided to take it on.”

By 2006, Mullen had developed a homemade vest - “duct-taped together” -which he tested with college students. A prototype was subsequently pilotedin two children with autism undergoing speech-language therapy at the UMassCommunications Disorders department.

Early this year, the final product was tested in children with autism at three occupational therapy clinics: OTA Watertown/Spiral Foundation, inWatertown, the Institute for Dynamic Living in Springfield and the River Street School in Windsor, Conn.

“They liked it!” Mullen said.

Though the vest is pricey - $2,000 - the two entrepreneurs started a partnership program and are recruiting supporters to donate the vests to schools and clinics.

“For most people with autism, the family is already cash-strapped,” Mullen said. “In the last month, four vests have been sponsored in Amherst, Springfield, Northampton and Windsor.” Mullen’s goal is to have the vest become insurance-reimbursable as a medical device for children with autism.

When Temple Grandin herself came to UMass for a speaking engagement a few years back, Mullen “tackled” her to show her the vest. (May 2011)