Maya Burhanpurkar: Harnessing Autonomous Technology for Wheelchairs and More
Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, who are advancing the UN SDGs.
Hi everyone! I’m Spiffy, your favorite interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs making a difference on UN SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. Today I’m going to learn about how one company has harnessed autonomous technology to improve the lives of people and places that use wheelchairs. Join me as I welcome Maya Burhanpurkar, founder of Adventus Robotics.
Spiffy: Hi Maya, I love autonomous technology, so I’m super excited to learn about your work. Can you start by telling me what challenges you’re addressing?
Maya: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! Did you know that greenhouses, hospitals, and airports have been hit with labor shortages and dangerous working conditions due to the Covid-19 pandemic? We developed autonomous self-driving software to automate existing wheeled equipment that helps farmers alleviate labor shortages, protects essential workers, and keeps doctors and patients safe. Our system is retrofittable, so customers can automate their existing equipment fleets quickly at low cost. So far, we have automated power wheelchairs, greenhouse tugs, and floor cleaners.
Spiffy: That’s amazing, Maya! What motivated you to harness autonomous technology for these purposes?
Maya: My grandfather ran an occupational and physiotherapy practice serving the developmentally disabled, so I grew up with an understanding of wheelchairs and the difficulties many people face in using them. I was lucky to work in a lab at the University of Toronto before beginning university that was developing the earliest phases of a project to automate power wheelchairs. Many more years of work brings us to where we are today. We realized what we developed was not specific to wheelchairs at all, and now our goal is to use our autonomous technology to benefit those who use any and all kinds of wheeled equipment.
Spiffy: How would you say that are you working to create a more equitable world?
Maya: Our roots are in developing autonomous technologies for the most vulnerable members of our society, and this is something that will never change about us. At Adventus, we are democratizing self-driving technology. Autonomous technologies shouldn’t just be available for those who can afford to put multiple $20,000 LiDAR sensors on their machines. It should be accessible to everyone—from frontline workers to the most vulnerable members of society.
Spiffy: Are there any initiatives you’ve launched that you’re especially proud of?
Maya: We have been fortunate to work with researchers at Toronto General Hospital. We found that hospitals like Toronto General lose tens of millions of dollars and miss out on thousands of appointments each year due to late patient arrivals caused by the wheelchair portering process. Hospitals in Ontario are currently facing staff shortages because of the pandemic, and the 30 minutes a porter spends taking a perfectly able-bodied patient to an MRI appointment is time they could spend helping ICU patients. We are so proud to be helping make our hospital system more efficient and equitable.
Spiffy: This is super exciting, Maya. I can’t wait to see how this technology continues to impact the people and places that need this the most. Thanks for sharing your story with us. It’s been an honor.
Maya Burhanpurkar is the co-founder of Adventus Robotics, a company harnessing autonomous technology for use in wheeled equipment. Over the past year, Adventus Robotics has won the Harvard i3 Innovation Challenge, the LPCE Accelerator Launch Fund, and the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. Maya is a senior at Harvard University, double majoring in theoretical physics and computer science. (Nominated by Harvard Innovation Labs. First published on the Ladderworks website on May 28, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.
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