Stanford University will have to wait. Eighteen-year-old Erin Smith is taking her medical technology venture, FacePrint, on the road.
The Johnson County teen has been selected to join two prestigious fellowships to further develop FacePrint, which is a diagnostic and monitoring Tool for Parkinson’s Disease. She’s been tapped for $25,000 from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, as well as a two-year, $100,000 Thiel Fellowship.
Smith plans to forgo immediately starting college for the opportunity, she said.
“I hope to take the lessons that I have already learned and continue to expand both personally and professionally,” said Smith, a 2018 graduate of the Shawnee Mission School District. “Ultimately, I hope to leverage the resources from both opportunities to transform the face of Parkinson’s disease diagnosis and treatment.”
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. In talking to caregivers and clinicians, Smith learned that her observations matched the changes they noticed, even before patients were diagnosed.
This led Smith to the idea that maybe she could develop a tracking device that could lead to early diagnosis. FacePrint digitizes and quantifies the masked face and other identified spontaneous and posed facial expression impairments associated with early signs of disease onset. Requiring only a computer and webcam, FacePrint offers an inexpensive, remote tool to detect early stage Parkinson’s disease within milliseconds.
For two years, Smith worked with the UMKC Small Business & Technology Development Center on a strategy for the venture — finding a mentor in Sally Williams, a SBTDC technology development and commercialization consultant.
“[After collaborating with SBTDC], FacePrint has evolved from the preliminary research project into a viable business idea,” Smith said. “From connecting me with a pro bono patent attorney to teaching me about pitch decks and business plans, Sally provided insights that were critical at an early-stage to ensure the later growth and development of FacePrint.”
The Thiel Fellowship — started by PayPal co-founder Peter Theil — begins this fall, offering 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.
Smith plans to stay connected to Williams and the resources at the SBTDC while in the fellowship, she said.
“My advice to other entrepreneurs is to seek as much advice/criticism as possible as early as possible,” Smith said. “We can become too comfortable only seeking advice from people whose opinions align with ours (hence the term a support network). This pattern creates stagnation not growth. Instead, we must be willing to step outside of ourselves and seek to create a challenge network full of people who will question our ideas and thought processes. You must be willing to ruthlessly dissect your work before you will see any improvements.”