Back in Business

Back in Business

For two SPH alumni, a change of life brings out the entrepreneur.

Kathy's Climate Kits

Blame it on Al Gore. When An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006, Kathy Washienko, MPH '93, got so fired up she bought 200 tickets to give to people who might not otherwise see the film. For Christmas that year, she gave everyone in her family compact fluorescent light bulbs, rechargeable batteries, and a reusable grocery bag. The next year she gave them climate kits she'd made herself. Then people started asking if they could buy the kits to give to friends, and suddenly Washienko, a mother of two who'd left the workforce nine years earlier to raise her daughters, found herself in business.

Kathy's Climate Kits opened earlier this year in the basement of Washienko's home in Seattle, Washington—or more accurately in the corner of the basement she's managed to wrest from her kids. The company's website went live in April, and soon afterward Washienko experienced the thrill of getting orders from strangers, "as opposed to my friends."

The bigger thrill is knowing she's helping people do something for the greater good. Each climate kit comes with a raft of gadgets to lessen its owner's carbon footprint—weather-stripping, an LED nightlight, toilet-leak detection tablets, even letters to Congress. For every kit she sells, Washienko plants a tree, and for every kit owner who completes certain climate-saving tasks, she makes a donation to an organization fighting climate change.

Despite the time, energy, and money she's invested in Kathy's Climate Kits, Washienko's primary goal is not to make a profit—it's to build a healthier world. "We're running out of time," she says. "The last eight years have been really discouraging. That's part of the reason I wanted to do it—I wanted to be doing something positive so it didn't feel so hopeless."

Keys to Prevention

Bells often go off around David Perlman, MPH '69. Sometimes it's his Treo reminding him of an appointment, but the former SPH administrator hears other kinds of bells too.

Like the one that sounded a few years ago, when he was coping with a family member who compulsively pulled her hair, and a therapist told Perlman, "You know, over 90 percent of pulling happens outside of consciousness. If we could only alarm these people before they pull, we'd have a chance to use cognitive behavioral therapy, the only thing that we know works."

Ding! a bell went off inside Perlman's head. She's right. Prevention is key.

So he enlisted the help of some colleagues, and together they founded a medical technology company and developed a device to prevent chronic hair-pulling and other self-destructive compulsive behaviors.

The result is the Awareness-Enhancement and Monitoring Device (AEMD), which a person prone to hair-pulling can wear on the wrist and neck. The small device monitors the position of the wearer's hand relative to the site of pulling and sets off a sound and/or vibration alarm when the hand enters the "danger zone." In order to deactivate the alarm, the wearer must move his or her hand away. The device logs each alarm event so that the information can be downloaded to a computer and analyzed by the wearer and/or a therapist.

Because most compulsive behavior is unconscious, the device works in two ways: first, it makes people aware of their behavior, so they can choose not to engage in it; secondly, it helps train them to keep their hands down.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at some point in their lives, more than 3 million Americans pull their hair to the point of noticeable baldness. Not only is the disorder personally and socially devastating, it often leads to anxiety and depression.

Last year, Perlman received a National Institute of Mental Health grant to develop and test a prototype of the AEMD. He is currently applying for additional funding to conduct clinical trials and ultimately to commercialize the device. It's the first of two products Perlman has developed since retiring from SPH in 2003. The second is an electronic device called TurnAlertAA, which is designed to prevent bed sores. Both products are based on the public-health principle of prevention, he says.

Perlman has always had an "engineering impulse"—which he attributes to his adolescent penchant for racing cars—but until retire-ment had little time or chance to indulge it.

What does he love best about his new career?

"Everything," he says. "Everything is brand new." And with that a bell rings, and David Perlman, COO, is off to another meeting.

Send correspondence about this or any Findings article to the editor at sph.findings@umich.edu. You will be contacted if your letter is considered for publication.