48 Hours, 11 Innovations at TOM:Berkeley

On March 17, nearly 100 innovators gathered at the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation to kick off a weekend makeathon focused on developing custom solutions for everyday challenges encountered by people with disabilities. The event, called TOM: Berkeley, was presented by UC Berkeley student group EnableTech as part of the global Tikkun Olam Makers community, with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation. Using space and equipment in Jacobs Hall and the CITRIS Invention Lab, 11 teams worked with need-knowers to create prototypes over 48 hours. Here’s a look at the innovations they brought to life.

Speech Translator

Malia is 11 years old and has severe cerebral palsy, which often makes it difficult for people to understand her when she speaks. To help Malia communicate more accurately and fully, the speech translator team — made up of a combination of Berkeley students and Googlers — developed an algorithm to learn from and adapt to her voice, understand what she is saying, and translate it to others around her.

Auto Shift

Alvaro, an MBA student at the Haas School of Business, is quadriplegic with limited motion in his shoulders. He enjoys hand cycling, but current gear shifting mechanisms rely heavily on wrist and grip strength. For Alvaro, this means that going for a ride requires a second cyclist to ride alongside him, shifting his bike’s gears for him as needed. The auto shift team developed a gear shift mechanism that allows him to use his elbows, and they hope to work on developing a voice-activated solution as a next step.

Grocery Helper

Bliss, a mom to three kids and a full-time doctor who lives in San Francisco, is hemipalegic. When Bliss takes her children grocery shopping, she finds it difficult to manage both her kids and the groceries while navigating city streets in her wheelchair. She had seen bulky devices that might help, but hoped to find a solution that would allow for flexibility. The grocery helper team — all brothers of the professional engineering fraternity Theta Tau — developed a solution with only one permanent component: a small metal plate mounted to the back of Bliss’ chair, to which a swinging basket can be easily added and removed.

Autism Letterboard

To communicate at school, many children with autism rely on a physical letterboard: a laminated sheet of paper on which students can point out letters, which are then relayed by an aide. To help facilitate more autonomy in the classroom, the autism letterboard team developed a digitized touchscreen letterboard powered by a Raspberry Pi. Rather than pointing out a letter to an aide, the digital letterboard allows students to touch letters that are then recorded instantly by the computer, both speeding up the process of communication and reducing reliance on aides.

Makeup Applicator

Since sustaining an injury eight years ago, Ligia has been unable to apply makeup by herself. Until this weekend, she would apply her makeup by asking a caretaker or one of her sons to hold and position her brushes, pencils, and lipsticks while she would move her face and apply her own makeup. While she had become very skilled at using this system, it would slow down her morning routine, and she was looking for a way to put on makeup more independently. The Makeup Applicator team created a solution that holds her applicators, allowing her to apply makeup with autonomy.


Owen, a Berkeley-based filmmaker and self-taught engineer, can only interface with technology when in his wheelchair, using a customized joystick controlled by his chin. Because Owen spends a lot of time at home outside of his wheelchair, this quickly becomes limiting. But as an engineer, Owen doesn’t like to think small — in addition to a non-wheelchair-exclusive technology interface, he also wants to automate devices around his house through an app. To tackle Owen’s multi-faceted challenge, the HouseAUTO team worked on projects like developing a mechanical arm to attach to Owen’s wheelchair, connecting his joystick to a tablet interface, and setting up a server to control peripheral devices.


Longtime Berkeley resident Bonnie loves to spend time outside, enjoying local trails and working with the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program. Currently, she relies on a grabber arm to pick up things from her wheelchair. Most of these grabbers rely heavily on wrist and grip strength, making them impossible for Bonnie to operate with one hand. Current devices also have difficulty picking up objects heavier than one pound, forcing Bonnie to rely on maneuvering a converted dustbin to lift heavy objects. Take a look at Bonnie’s experience at the makeathon here.

Leg Bag Emptier

Rafe, who sustained a spinal cord injury ten years ago, uses a leg bag connected to a catheter. If the mechanism breaks, Rafe must send in the device to be repaired, leaving him without an autonomous solution for a week or longer. Some current devices are also unreliable in determining whether or not the leg bag is full — and if the detector mechanism fails, urine can become backed up in the user’s bladder, potentially leading to serious health complications. The Leg Bag Emptier team aimed to develop an easy-to-use and reliable solution for this challenge. They created a system in which sensors on the bag (controlled by an Arduino) connect to Rafe’s iPhone, where he can use an app to monitor the time elapsed since the bag was last emptied and its current fullness level.

Tendon Glove

As a result of a spinal cord injury, Marcos, a Berkeley architecture student, has no function in his hands and relies on exoskeleton-type devices (which can be bulky or unstable) to grab objects. The tendon glove team developed a rigid glove, which provides Marcos with increased grip strength between his thumb and index finger. Unlike existing devices, the team’s solution forms to the shape of Marcos’ hand for easier usability and more flexibility.


For people with limited to no arm and leg function, a robotic arm attached to a wheelchair can serve as a backup working limb. However, solutions currently on the market can cost upwards of $50,000, making them inaccessible for many people, and cheaper desktop arms don’t provide the same strength and range of motion. Need-Knower Jade, who had created an early prototype of a solution with Owen (the Need-Knower for HouseAUTO) before the makeathon, took the idea further with the JARL team over the weekend. They created a model equipped with two degrees of freedom and a laser pointer, to make operation easier and more accurate. The team’s minimum viable product is a robotic limb that can press elevator buttons.

Travel Commode

When Jill’s parents travel, taking their toilet and shower chair with them is difficult — most models aren’t made for portability and can be heavy and cumbersome. To facilitate easier, hassle-free travel, the travel commode team developed an inexpensive and lightweight commode that can be easily broken down into parts that fit into a standard backpack or carry-on bag. Once Jill’s parents have arrived at their destination, the device is easy to reassemble without needing a screwdriver or any tools besides a small hex wrench. The team’s device is also much less expensive than similar products on the market.

Instructions for building these custom, affordable solutions will be made freely available online, with the aim of helping other people with disabilities around the world. For the students and community members who participated, the makeathon provided a valuable chance to apply their knowledge to real challenges. “The Jacobs Institute was made for a makeathon like this,” said George Anwar, a lecturer at UC Berkeley, adding, “This event is so much greater than a grade, and it teaches our students to put the person in need first.”

Learn more about the makeathon at berkeley.tomglobal.org. TOM:Berkeley is a local community for student makers, designers, developers, and engineers working together with people with disabilities to develop technological solutions for everyday challenges. This event was co-organized by the student group EnableTech at UC Berkeley, who will also be providing support for projects to continue after the event. By mobilizing TOM Communities worldwide, TOM:Tikkun Olam Makers seeks to address neglected challenges and develop millions of affordable technological solutions for people with disabilities around the globe. Established in 2014, TOM is a strategic initiative of the Reut Group.

Content for this recap came from Tikkun Olam Makers and from Jacobs Institute student storytellers Dapree Doyle and Nicole Kim.