The magazine of the Case Alumni Association
at the Case School of Engineering

Technology for humanity

With a pandemic pivot, a Case engineer immersed herself in “the latest and greatest tech” — the kind that helps people.

—By Carmen Fontana ’00, MS ’05

As a girl tinkering with our family’s Commodore 128, I became fascinated with how lines of code can transform into a mechanism for personal communication and entertainment. These were the early days of personal computing, which required outsized amounts of patience and positivity to deal with clunky interfaces and constant crashes. Yet I was excited about what could be.

For my senior project at Case, I developed a computer model of the Aral Sea region in the former Soviet Union. Plagued by bad environmental and government decisions, the area was in ecological peril. These were the early days of machine learning and my partner and I spent hours tweaking our algorithms. By today’s standards, they would be considered hopelessly rudimentary, but I could see the potential of what we were doing. We were trying to make sense of a complicated world through technology.

Post graduation, and for the next two decades, I tinkered in a variety of industries and roles. Some were tech, some not. Some were inherently satisfying, some not. Then came the pandemic. Like many, I had an existential moment (really lots of existential moments!) Where did I want to go with my career? What was my purpose?

Thus, I became another member of the “great resignation.” It was time to rediscover the joy of immersing myself in the latest and greatest tech. And it was time to do something that made a difference.

Today, I’m vice president of operations at Augment Therapy, a Cleveland startup that lets me practice technology with heart.

At Augment Therapy, we gamify the experience of physical therapy via augmented reality. Think Pok mon meets evidence-based exercise. Patients – often children – interact with virtual environments and games, instead of tedious traditional therapy exercises. By making therapy fun, we encourage our young patients to follow their medical plan, which we know can improve their health.

What I love about our technology is that it pushes what is possible. Environments and avatars are built using the world’s leading 3D modeling engine. And we use the latest in visual artificial intelligence to capture and respond to movements in joints throughout the body.

Our niche is serving those with complex medical needs, such as Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome, Sickle Cell Anemia, and cancer. Our users may be wheelchair-bound, missing a limb, or have a very limited range of motion. We design complex technology to work for them. That includes designing avatars with hair loss, or that use walkers. Or adapting gameplay to accommodate kids with a low range of motion or cognitive delays.

These are not easy tasks. And, of course, there are the business challenges a startup faces. We’re balancing the competing demands of finding market fit and growing a company while managing a limited cash flow.

Healthcare startups have an additional set of challenges. We benefit from the growing interest in digital health and new care delivery models. But hospital budgets are constrained. Staffing levels are low and clinicians are stressed. Our goal is to be a benefit, not a burden, to the caregivers and patients who have been through so much.

At the end of the day, it is all worth it. Today I watched some film from our installation on the oncology floor at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, where our software is used to help stem cell transplant patients. These are very sick kids who have become physically deconditioned because of their extended hospital stays. They are also vulnerable to infection, and unable to run around the playground like other kids their age.

What did I see? These kids were smiling. They were doing their therapy. We are making a difference. It has been years since my Commodore and CWRU days, but I still get excited to see how new technologies can help bring us together to solve new problems — and create positive change.

Carmen, an engineer, is Vice President of Operations at Augment Therapy.

Augment Therapy uses technology to make critical therapy more engaging for young patients.

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