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Wednesday, April 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Northwood Middle School student invents device to aid people with weak grips; earns spot in nationals

Jake Gendreau, a seventh-grader at Northwood Middle School, won Best of Show in the seventh-eighth grades category during the Invent Washington State Competition on April 14. (Courtesy / Courtesy)
Jake Gendreau, a seventh-grader at Northwood Middle School, won Best of Show in the seventh-eighth grades category during the Invent Washington State Competition on April 14. (Courtesy / Courtesy)

Jake Gendreau heard the admonition from his orthodontist.

The Northwood Middle School seventh-grader was wearing braces for the first time, and he was reminded of how important it was going to be for him to brush his teeth.

For most kids, that kind of reminder tends to go in one ear and out the other, greeted by mental choruses of “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

In Jake, however, it sparked something much more creative.

“For one thing, he never told me what would happen if I didn’t brush,” the inquisitive patient said. “So I came home and I did some research. I discovered there were all kinds of diseases it could lead to.”

For most kids, getting this far turns the episode into a cautionary tale of extra brushing.

But Jake isn’t most kids.

“I started to think about people who couldn’t brush and what I could do to help them,” he said. “People with Parkinson’s and other diseases. The No. 1 condition that makes it difficult is arthritis, and I thought about my grandma Zell, who recently passed away but who had really bad arthritis.”

So Jake set out to devise a way to help those people

Even as a middle school student, Jake is an accomplished inventor.

He was introduced to a program called Invent Washington, which encourages youngsters to invent and design products.

“My first invention was called the Super Sitter,” Jake explained. “It was designed to help keep kids on the chairlift for skiing. I fell off a few times, and I wanted to find a way to keep that from happening.”

That invention won the statewide competition.

“The next year I came up with the Backseat Baby Alarm,” he said. “I had heard stories about babies dying in the back seat of cars during the summer because their parents had forgotten them on a hot day.

“When you open the car door, it says “Baby, Baby, Baby” to remind you there’s a baby in the back seat.”

That invention won a second straight state title and earned Jake a trip to Washington, D.C., and the national finals.

The idea of helping people brush their teeth became his next project.

First step: research.

“I spent some time looking at what other people have done,” Jake said. “There is nothing more disappointing than finding that someone else has already done your idea.”

There are rules for projects to be entered in the Invent Washington program. For starters, inventors must document their process, journaling about their ideas, their process for developing that idea and the trials and errors that come with innovation.

It’s not about throwing money at an idea, either.

“There’s a $25 limit on what you can spend,” Jake’s father, Craig Gendreau – an engineer – explained. “We bought some things for his presentation table and a binder for his invention journal, but that’s about it. I don’t think we quite spent the whole $25.”

Long before Jake got involved with inventions, he’d been involved in a competitive league where teams built functioning robots out of Legos.

“I really enjoyed doing that, and I missed it when I couldn’t do it anymore,” Jake said. “I enjoy figuring out what makes things work. When one of my toys would break down, I’d open it up and figure out how it worked.”

That experience left Jake with a hunger to design, but it also left him with plenty of material to work with on his designs – an array of Legos and PLCs (programmable logic controllers) to allow them to perform specific tasks.

The first task was to design a toothbrush handle that can be used by people with poor grip strength or with fine motor-skill difficulties.

“He tried a few different things,” his father explained. “What he came up with was filling a balloon with coffee grounds. Because coffee grounds have jagged little edges, they tend to interconnect and hold their shape once you create a vacuum in the balloon. It was pretty ingenious.”

The next challenge was to find a way to help get toothpaste out of the tube and onto the brush – a task that Jake’s grandmother had complained about. That’s where the Legos and the programmable controller came in handy.

Jake refers to his mechanism as “the squeezer.”

Pushing a button starts a motor-driven device that squeezes a predetermined amount of toothpaste onto a toothbrush mounted underneath.

As it turns out, getting the button that starts the operation perfected was more of a challenge than designing the device itself.

“The first one I came up with was a small button,” Jake said. “It turns out it took a higher degree of motor skill to press the button than I originally thought.”

In the spirit of true innovation, Jake designed a bigger, better button and created it with his own 3-D printer.

“That was something he’s wanted for a long time, and he’d saved money toward it, so last year, on Black Friday, we got one for him,” his dad explained.

Once the project was finished, complete with a 120-page journal documenting the process, Jake invited his orthodontist, Dr. David Engen, over to check out the device.

“He’s a family friend and we had him over for dinner,” Jake said. “He looked at it, and he was impressed by it. He even suggested that it would help people I hadn’t thought of – people who have broken bones in their hand and can’t grip the tube.”

The Get-A-Grip device won the state’s Grand Champions trophy and, for the second straight year, earned Jake a trip to the national championship.

“Last year the competition was in Washington, D.C., and it was a lot of fun,” Jake said. “I got to spend a whole day looking at everyone else’s inventions and seeing what they’d all done. And since it was Washington, D.C., we got to spend some time seeing the sights. We spent a whole day going through the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

“This year the competition is in Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum, and I’m really excited to see that.”

To help get to the 2018 National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo, Jake has set up a GoFundMe page.

“So far, we’re about a third of the way there,” Jake said.

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