The Israeli movement aiming to fix the world

SOCIAL AFFAIRS: A dispatch from the UAE and Tikkun Olam Makers’ first-ever Global Innovation Challenge award ceremony.

 THE TOM Global Innovation Challenge winners.  (photo credit: TOM)
THE TOM Global Innovation Challenge winners.
(photo credit: TOM)

DUBAI – Imagine having a daughter born with a disability that prevents her from doing what makes her smile the most – drawing. And imagine being able to finally bring that huge smile to her face, thanks to affordable solutions created by Tikkun Olam Makers.

TOM is a global movement with communities around the world that creates affordable solutions for people living with disabilities, the elderly, and the poor. 

In the United Arab Emirates, people with special needs are known as people with determination, and so Expo Dubai was the perfect place for TOM’s first-ever Global Innovation Challenge award ceremony to take place. 

The award ceremony for TOM’s Global Innovation Challenge was the closing event for the 10-week challenge that saw 50 teams from 15 countries enter, and 28 teams submit a final project. 

The teams, in TOM talk, were made up of “need-knowers,” people with disabilities or direct knowledge of disabilities, and “makers,” people with the technical skills to create solutions for the need-knowers.

With 19 judges deciding on the winners, three teams won grand prizes of $5,000 and showcased their solutions, and two honorable mentions received $1,000 each.

The invite-only ceremony was packed with guests, and the large crowd excitedly discussed the solutions with their makers. 

On display were the grand prize winners: The One-2-Go portable adaptive toilet, Drawing Dreams and the Talker Mount, as well as an honorable mention winner, the Thenar.

 DRAWING DREAMS, the third grand prize winner, was designed with and for Orit Siegmann from Israel, who wanted to allow her six-year-old daughter, Shani, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, to enjoy activities like drawing without having to rely on someone. (credit: TOM) DRAWING DREAMS, the third grand prize winner, was designed with and for Orit Siegmann from Israel, who wanted to allow her six-year-old daughter, Shani, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, to enjoy activities like drawing without having to rely on someone. (credit: TOM)

The Talker Mount, a mechanism that can fold the talker – a tablet that allows people with cerebral palsy who cannot speak to communicate using its voice instead of their own – of a wheelchair under the table, was designed by Jaume Sanchez from Germany, who already has 24 different patents for his employer, Audi. 

He designed the machine for Franziska Schilling, a need-knower who wanted to control her wheelchair and her talker independently, without the need to ask for people’s help. The talker can be easily disassembled from the mechanism if the user wants or needs it outside of the wheelchair.

“I work as an innovator,” Sanchez told The Jerusalem Post ahead of the award ceremony. “There’s nothing new in the mechanism, just a good application of what’s already known.”

Ten weeks after entering the challenge and building the Talker Mount, he saw Franziska use the device.

“It was amazing to see her. I’ve done a lot of projects at Audi, but this was the most meaningful.”

Noam Platt, the grand prize winner from New Orleans, designed the One-2-Go portable adaptive toilet and, prior to the award ceremony, brought the device around Dubai to show just how easy it is to carry around and set up.

Platt participated in several TOM make-a-thons over the years and was contacted by a need-knower to help build a device to help her 16-year-old son with cerebral palsy use the toilet independently.

Platt told the Post that he spoke almost daily with the need-knower throughout the process and had a totally different design one month before the end of the challenge.

“It feels great to know that their lives are so much easier; it’s so rewarding,” he said. “Being a fully able body is a transient state. Everybody at some point in their lives will experience disability, be it through injury or age. Everyone will need products like this.

“The advantage is that it’s portable, and the most it would cost would be $100,” he said, explaining that it weighs 4.5 kg., is extremely comfortable and supportive, and can be modified.

Drawing Dreams, the third grand prize winner, was designed with and for Orit Siegmann from Israel, who wanted to allow her six-year-old daughter, Shani, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, to enjoy activities like drawing without having to rely on someone.

“Shani was completely dependent on family when she needed something,” Orit told the Post. “But she is very independent and wouldn’t want us to hold her forever.”

Prior to the challenge, Orit, who designs products on the side, was already trying to invent something to help hold her daughter’s arms. Building on the idea of a puppet show, Orit designed the device to help her daughter.

“I had a vision and joined TOM as a maker and told them about the idea. My goal was to have Shani hold her hands up with a device that would allow her to use her hands to eat with a spoon or to draw.”

Building the device was a “game changer. It makes Shani feel independent,” Orit said. “I’m not an emotional person, but I broke down in tears when I saw her being confident and smiling.

“When you see a kid, he walks, and he talks. But a disabled child, anything they do excites you. Shani has a lot of devotion and passion to do what other kids can do.”

The Thenar, one of the two winners of honorable mention, was designed by Adil Jussapov from Kazakhstan.

It took Jussapov two months to build the device, after speaking to a friend who told him of the difficulties she faced while doing her master’s degree.

The Thenar electronic braille reader provides a new way for blind people to read books conveniently by positioning a finger on a single braille cell and the thumb of the other hand on a jog dial to navigate through the text. The books are uploaded onto a memory card, which is then read by the Thenar.

“Most devices are unaffordable, and this device costs only $150,” Jussapov said, adding that it currently has books in English, Russian and Khazak available, and he and his team are working on books in Arabic, Spanish, Chinese and Hebrew.

Noam Gershony, a gold medal Paralympic winner, was one of the judges of the TOM Global Innovation Challenge. 

Gershony, who has used a wheelchair since he was injured when his helicopter collided with another during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, said that while engineers can bring one angle toward projects, it is the need-knower who can bring the full picture of what they need.

“Go sit in a wheelchair for a few days. Try not using your legs, and see how it is,” he said.

The challenge is a “great initiative. It’s amazing to see how many projects got to the final. It’s always amazing to see such innovation and creation,” he said ahead of the award ceremony. “And on top of creativity, its perseverance that defines TOM.”

USING 3D printers and providing open-source access to design files on TOM’s website, the solutions can be disseminated and recreated across the world for those who need them the most but can’t afford them.

“Affordable and accessible to everyone, everywhere” is the motto for TOM, which was founded by Gidi Grinstein in 2014. In the seven years since, it has grown from one community in Israel to dozens in 34 countries around the world.

“I had a vision of creating a ‘social Rafael,’” Grinstein said following the ceremony. “It would have assistive technology for people with disabilities, the elderly and poor. They are the groups that don’t get the attention of larger companies that could manufacture affordable products.”

Grinstein is also the founder and president of the Reut Group and former secretary of the Israeli delegation for the negotiations with the PLO in 1999-2001, including at the Camp David Summit and for the Clinton Parameters.

But when he speaks about TOM, you can see that it is this project and its dozens of communities around the world that he cares about most.

“In 2012 I started thinking of Jewish relations in the world and Israel’s standing, which depends on quantity and quality of contributions in the world. I understood that we are living in a new era of Jewish contributions, and we are able to provide life-changing platforms for those who need it most.”

Grinstein said that TOM’s global moonshot goal is to help 250 million people by inspiring and supporting a global network of communities.

“We are only focused on situations that don’t have an affordable market solution, so the concept of mass production doesn’t apply to these solutions. But with the solutions uploaded to our website, we see that they will all be available to anybody anywhere, at no cost. The user only pays the cost of manufacturing, which is minuscule,” he said.

Pointing to one solution showcased at the event, the PJ Prosthesis Violin Module, a 3D printed modular attachment to a prosthesis that allows amputees to play violins with ease, Grinstein said that, unlike another similar prosthesis that can cost over $25,000, “our solution costs $100-150$. And it’s available to everyone, anywhere.”

In TOM’s first six years, the nonprofit organization had hundreds of make-a-thons around the world that brought people together in three-day events to produce solutions. But as the coronavirus shut down the world for over a year, TOM had to find a new mode to operate and continue the innovation process without bringing participants together.

“We wanted to continue the momentum, and there was no way to do it in person, and this was a major pivot of operations; it became our new mode of operations,” Grinstein said, adding that while it was “much more effective in terms of cost per team and cost per solution, it was less effective in terms of community building like the make-a-thons.”

EDUN SELA, the CEO of TOM, said that there is “so much” opportunity to make a global impact in the social sector by taking the Israeli start-up ecosystem to support innovation in order to help people around the world.

“We have to leverage technology and existing resources that will allow us to tackle big challenges,” Sela said. “We can create an impact on the ground in a scalable and tangible way. There is both scarcity and abundance everywhere, and you can redirect what you have in abundance to where it is scarce.”

With TOM’s solutions online and available for anyone who visits their website, anyone can download and manufacture the solutions locally and “make a big difference,” Sela said.

“Our ability to make an impact by connecting the dots between someone who needs a device or solution and an endpoint, such as a maker space, is something of big value,” he said.

“They say ‘it takes a village,’ so we, as a global movement, are trying together to come up with this unique way of addressing needs that are simply overlooked. It always starts with the need of a specific person in a specific community, and then it grows.”

A corporate lawyer by training, Sela joined TOM in 2018 and is extremely passionate about the nonprofit.

“We are a small organization that is growing all over the world based on a vision of making technology accessible and affordable to all, no matter your geographical location or economic status.

“People in our movement speak different languages, have different cultural nuances, but they all speak the language of tikkun olam and are inspired by a shared global vision,” he said. 

With the Global Innovation Challenge a success, the next one will see 100 teams participating from all over the world, including from Africa and Asia. 

“We plan on working and delivering solutions across the world. It sounds crazy ambitious, but that’s our plan,” Grinstein said. 

The award ceremony took place in the American pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai, which was surrounded by the Kazakh, Israeli, Palestinian, Saudi, Bahraini, UAE and Egyptian pavilions. And on March 28, during the final days of Expo Dubai, TOM will have a co-sponsored event with all pavilions of countries that have signed the Abraham Accords, including Kosovo and Morocco.

“We are going to have an Abraham Accords open innovation challenge, with the goal of having 100 teams and full participation of Abraham Accords countries,” Grinstein said, adding that he hopes to have Jordan and Egypt take part; and while Saudi Arabia has not signed the accords, “my goal is to have a Saudi participant.”

Another goal of Grinstein is to make the TOM platform available in Arabic.

“We have the intention to make everything available in Arabic and find the right partners to distribute our solutions to the Arab world,” he said. “Sooner or later, we will have all solutions translated into Arabic. That’s happening.”

There’s even been talk to translate key solutions to Pashto, so that TOM can be available in Afghanistan, he said.

“One of the beauties of TOM is that we can cross borders without physically crossing borders.”