Behind the Award-Winning Tableware Set for People With Dementia

Behind the Award-Winning Tableware Set for People With Dementia
Photo Credit: Screenshot from YouTube video

What you need to know

'I didn’t know what my next step would be. I would sleep for a couple of hours and then jump out of bed to keep developing my plan.'

“Aren’t people tired of this story already?”

It’s 10 pm in San Francisco, and on the other end of the Skype call is Sha Yao (姚彥慈), designer of Eatwell, a tableware set for people with cognitive impairments that placed first at the 2014 Stanford Design Challenge.

After her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Yao spent four years researching how she could make eating easier for patients like her grandmother. The young designer started volunteering at senior care centers to learn more about the condition and is now running Eatwell with two full-time staff and three interns.

Speaking to The News Lens about what goes into creating a good product, Yao says, “You need to have an ideal, but you also need to be practical to carry out that ideal. Some people start selling [their product] without doing any research. They don’t know that some products won’t necessarily sell.”

Setbacks

Other than constantly redefining and modifying her design, Yao says she spent a lot of time communicating with factories. For example, a factory promised manufacturing the bowls and cups would only take six weeks, but it merely produced four items in the agreed time.

The young entrepreneur also ran into visa problems in the U.S. Yao initially planned to launch her startup and continue working at her former design firm at the same time. Her employer was willing to sponsor her working visa, but was overwhelmed by the process. With the application deadline approaching, Yao’s lawyer advised her to apply for a special startup visa instead.

“I was under so much pressure then,” says Yao. “The immigration office told me to provide a seven-page Word document projecting the company’s revenue for the next three years and a five-year business plan. It was so complicated.”

Yao said she even considered returning to Taiwan, but she had come up with the idea of Eatwell in the U.S. and that was where all her contacts were. She would be giving up her resources if she went back to Taiwan.

“I really wanted to stay in the U.S., at least up to a stage that I was sure I could continue working [on Eatwell] if I returned to Taiwan,” says Yao. “But still, I was a bit lost back then. I didn’t know what my next step would be. I would sleep for a couple of hours and then jump out of bed to keep developing my plan.”

Moving forward

It took seven months for the startup visa to come through, and Yao is still based in the U.S. The next step for Eatwell is to modify the tray in the tableware set and they are also considering working with major corporations.

"We are willing to experiment with any good ideas. Eatwell was our first product, and because we place importance on the research process, it takes us a long time to plan for developing a new product,” says Yao.

Yao says another major problem older people face is loneliness, and she has been thinking about working with virtual reality (VR).

“Loneliness is very hard to deal with, but there are a lot of opportunities to improve it,” says Yao. “Increasing interaction is one way.”

With all the obstacles she has faced, Yao says she will keep working on Eatwell because “it’s doing something that’s right.”

“I have met so many people while working on this project, from designers to caretakers, and it has made me realize this is something that has potential and is worth developing,” says Yao. “Unless you really run into a dead end, you just can’t fail being a startup.”

The original interview was published in Chinese on The News Lens.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole