James M. Berklan

Kenneth Shinozuka modestly aspires to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and he might be just the guy to do it. He’s already created a personal sensor system that could revolutionize the wandering management field — and he hasn’t even finished high school yet.

His trademarked SafeWander sensor system is as simple as it is brilliant. It would be no surprise to see it in countless long-term and senior care communities soon. In a nutshell, the quarter-size sensor screws discreetly to a patient’s clothing and notifies a caregiver’s smartphone whenever there’s body movement from a bed or chair.

It was beta tested over the summer in three California facilities with glowing results.

I first became aware of this Bronx phenom about a year ago, through a Boy Scouts of America blog that told of his Sock Sensor wander management tool. Since that time, the Eagle Scout has won numerous national science contest honors and spoken about his family-inspired work in front of thousands of people at a time. He clearly is no regular first-semester senior at the esteemed college-prep Horace Mann School.

I resumed the 17-year-old’s trail this week simply to tie up a loose end. By pure happenstance, his SafeWander system had a “soft” opening Wednesday. That’s when online order-taking began. By the time shipping starts on Dec. 11, he will have added another impressive keynote presentation to his mind-boggling media resume.

Nov. 19-20 he will be a featured speaker at the Aging2.0 conference in San Francisco, where he will also hold the grand opening of the system. Google, Amazon, Yahoo, various providers, investors and many other key tech companies and think tanks will be represented.

Then again, Shinozuka is already quite familiar with Google, and vice versa. In 2014, he won the $50,000 Scientific American Science in Action Award at the Google Science Fair. He says that prize, along with financial support from friends and family, is largely what’s fueling his start-up business. Potential venture capital partners undoubtedly are drooling to get into the inner circle.

Early signs

Shinozuka’s story has screenplay written all over it. The son of a pair of Civil Engineering professors at Columbia University, he was just 6 years old when he invented Smart Bathroom, a watch that sends an alert if a person falls in the bathroom. The next year, he came up with the Smart Medicine Box, which uses lights and sounds to promote medication reminders and adherence.

Not just a science fanatic, he also loves English classes, is an avid member of his school’s debate team and once ran his own movie review website before he became too busy.

He recorded a perfect score on the ACT exam and counts backpacking in the Grand Canyon among one of his fondest Boy Scouting experiences. (He reached its highest rank — Eagle — at age 14 and is also a Brotherhood member of the Order of the Arrow, the BSA honor society whose motto is “Cheerful Service.”)

Despite other obligations, Shinozuka has remained active in scouting by giving STEM presentations to younger scouts. Also, last February, he delivered to Congress the annual Boy Scout report to the nation.

 He has been honored among celebrities and leaders of industry over the last two years. But the most inspiring person he says he has encountered is his recently deceased grandfather. Deming Feng (his mother’s father, in accompanying photo) suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for around a decade before dying earlier this year. It was the elder Feng’s plight, and that of a daughter who cared for him, that set Kenneth on a quest.

“When we realized the technologies my aunt was using were not that effective, I realized there was a need for a better solution,” he explained to me this week. The young inventor talked excitedly, yet with the clarity one apparently achieves through speaking for a TED talk, national newscasts and scientific meetings such as the Royal Society of Medicine’s Medical Innovations Summit in London.

“It was interesting that people hadn’t approached the problem from putting sensors on patients themselves,” Shinozuka explained. “Now we’re detecting the patient’s body position.”

His first invention in this realm surfaced two years ago with a sensor in a wanderer’s sock. Upon testing it among seniors, however, he came to realize that not all of them slept in socks, and many might take socks off in an agitated state unrelated to the sensor.

So it was back to the drawing board, leading to the creation of a sensor that’s currently being patented. It essentially screws onto a piece of clothing — like a bottle cap, with the sensor on one side of the clothing and a base part on the other, Shinozuka explained.

It did not miss a single one of his grandfather’s 437 wandering episodes during a test period, the young scientist reported. Further testing took place last summer at three long-term care facilities in Southern California. Again, success, although the then-16-year-old said not everything was smooth sailing.

“A lot of night shift caregivers are from different countries and didn’t have a lot of experience with technology, so I had to go in the middle of the night to teach some of them, even how to turn on the phone,” he recalled. “As a result, I realized I had to make the app even more user friendly. I think this has the potential to be a universal solution.”

The system carries a one-time cost of $249. That gets you a battery-powered button sensor, a “gateway” unit that plugs into the wall and the all-important app for an iPhone of Apple device. Androids will be supported beginning in January. Batteries — similar to hearing aid batteries, Shinozuka noted — should be good for at least a year.

Notifications can be sent to multiple smartphones, or a single caregiver can receive alerts about several patients at a time.

Grandpa’s inspiration

Shinozuka said he almost closed shop in 2013, when he became frustrated over lack of success connecting sensors to the smartphone app. Then, his grandfather turned the tables, unexpectedly starting to sing in a muted whisper, mumbling Chinese songs he once used to teach Shinozuka the Chinese language.

“In this moment, he seemed to know who I was. I was galvanized to push through,” Shinozuka said. “I realized I  couldn’t reverse his condition, but I could try to keep him safe with my sensors.”

Ultimately, the grandson proved he could. His grandfather’s death was caused by general body system breakdown after such a long time with Alzheimer’s.

Shinozuka says he hasn’t decided on a college yet, but believes he’ll apply to East Coast schools. He’ll likely start with bioengineering and then pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

“I know I want to do something with the brain, but I can’t pinpoint precisely what yet,” he said. “I’ve really been motivated a lot by the stories from caregivers like my aunt, who had to stay awake all night, and hearing their struggles.”

Providers and seniors themselves can only hope that he’ll continue on the path he has started. Reflecting on a motto he picked up as a Boy Scout, it seems likely he will.

“One of the things that has impacted me the most is just the spirit that you should do a good turn daily and always be trying to help others, even if they don’t ask for help,” he says. “That spirit of doing good for others in return for nothing in particular has helped to motivate me, definitely.”

James M. Berklan is McKnight’s Editor. Follow him @JimBerklan.