Eighteen-year-old Erin Smith did not start college with her peers this month. Instead, the recent high school graduate will be advancing her medical technology startup, FacePrint.
Smith said she’s fascinated by the potential she sees in technology and what it directly enables.
“I feel like as I’ve been searching for answers to my questions, technology is something that I’ve gravitated toward,” said Smith. “I think so there’s so much potential for technology, artificial intelligence specifically, to be leveraged to create tools that can create social good and solve the most pressing social issues.”
With help from the UMKC Small Business & Technology Development Center (SBTDC), Smith has spent the last two years working on a business strategy for her face-recognition technology that will potentially diagnose Parkinson’s disease.
“When I began working with the SBTDC, FacePrint was merely an idea with a small research project supporting it,” Smith said. “Through [SBTDC technology development and commercialization consultant] Sally William’s mentorship, FacePrint has evolved from the preliminary research project into a viable business idea.”
She has won several awards along the way and this fall, she will begin a two-year, $100,000 Thiel Fellowship.
Smith’s idea was inspired by a video produced by the Michael J. Fox Foundation. She noticed that whenever Fox, or other people with Parkinson’s disease, would laugh or smile, it came off as emotionally distant.
“As I began working with Parkinson’s patients and working with caretakers and clinicians, I noticed observations in where caretakers and clinicians confirmed and validated a lot of the observations I’d been making,” said Smith. “But then it was really the element of working one-on-one with patients that perpetuated my motivation to continue.”
Her observations led Smith to the idea that maybe she could develop a tracking device that could lead to early diagnosis.
“There have been two major studies so far using this technology.,” said Smith. “They’ve both been more crowdsourced studies, so what I’m doing right now is preparing for clinical trials with the technology. That will be one of the next major research steps this upcoming winter or early 2019.”
Smith will also be working on product and technology development over the coming months as a Thiel Fellow.
The fellowship is designed for young entrepreneurs who have a great business idea and are willing to delay or forgo college to pursue their business. It was started by PayPal co-founder, Peter Theil, offers funding, mentorship and influential business connections.
Smith is one of 20 award winners in 2018 who will be connected to the 60 companies started by Thiel Fellows that now have a combined worth of more than $1.1 billion.
“As I begin working with the Thiel Foundation to turn my idea into a business venture, I will build upon the foundation provided to me by the SBTDC,” Smith said. “I hope to take the lessons that I have already learned and continue to expand both personally and professionally. Ultimately, I hope to leverage the resources from both opportunities to transform the face of Parkinson’s disease diagnosis and treatment.”