Sarah Faith Davis is a freshman at Wright State University and has needed help being fed at mealtimes. Now she won’t need someone to feed her thanks to locally developed and manufactured Obi feeders, which use a robotic arm to scoop and move food toward the users mouth. STAFF PHOTO / HOLLY SHIVELY
Photo: Holly Shively
Photo: Holly Shively

How a Dayton innovation company is growing

Wright State University is integrating a local company’s technology to help students with disabilities be more independent at mealtimes.

Locally invented and manufactured Obi was created by University of Dayton engineering graduate Jon Dekar, who made the first all-wood prototype his freshman year. From there he continued developing the technology, trying to compress larger robotics innovations to a fraction of the size and cost for consumer use, Dekar said.

He put his first model in front of investors about a year after he graduated, which is mostly the same model used today, Dekar said. Obi is a four compartment plate, with a mechanical arm holding a spoon. It’s about seven pounds, so consumers are able to travel and take it to restaurants.

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“I found it very odd that there just wasn’t a technology yet on the market to help people with this basic human need and one of life’s most enjoyable day-to-day aspects,” Dekar said.

Now Dekar’s company DESiN (pronounced Design), which designs and manufactures Obi robotic feeders all in-house in Dayton, sells Obi in 20 different countries. Nearly 1,000 Obi devices, which use different controllers based on mobility needs to operate an arm and attached spoon, have been manufactured and shipped to people who need them to eat on their own.

About 3.5 to 4 million people in the United States could use Obi, Dekar said. About 15 to 20 Wright State students can benefit from the tool found in two dining halls — The Marketplace and the Hangar, according to a Wright State spokesman. There’s a third Obi in the Office of Disability Services where students can train on the device before using it in public.

“I expect that demand will continue to grow and we may also have employees who may find that it will be very beneficial for them as well, so I would suspect that we might be going back to DESiN in some short order in order to help make sure that those that need this technology are able to access it,” said Chery Schrader, Wright State president.

Students who want to use the Obi can check it out at either of the dining facilities. Just about every food will work. Staff members will cut up foods like pizza and chicken so the Obi can pick them up with a spoon, said Wright State’s executive director of hospitality Haitham Shtaieh.

“I have friends who are willing to help me, but it just allows me to be more independent while I’m eating,”said Sarah Faith Davis, a freshman communications major at Wright State who has used the Obi device a few times and plans to use it more.

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The Obi robotic feeders were funded by a $15,000 grant through the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s Quality of Life Program. Wright State received the grant once before to buy basketball wheelchairs.

The university has to skip the next cycle but will continue applying for funds to improve the quality of life, said Tom Webb, director of Disability Services at Wright State.

Because Wright State many students with significant physical disabilities, the Reeve Foundation is more willing to look at the university for funding, Webb said.

“That’s because they can see the impact,” Schrader said. “They know that many more folks will be able to benefit from it here because of that greater need.”

DESiN has 11 employees and will keep growing because more people need access to the technology nationwide as well, Dekar said.

The company will soon launch the second generation of Obi, which will make for a smoother experience. The company has just scratched the surface of the market, Dekar said.

“It’s all about the experience. It’s not about the functional problem of getting food from point A to point B. It’s about crafting and improving a lifestyle that’s more extraordinary,” he said.

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