Mac undergraduate student shares journey to earning a global innovation award

Engineering student Lianna Genovese, right, with Elissa James, who inspired her to create Guided Hands, a device that enables people with limited hand mobility to write, paint and use a tablet. Genovese has won the U21 RISE Award for innovation.

A project that began as part of a first-year Integrated Biomedical Engineering and Health Sciences (iBioMed) course has turned into a patent-pending assistive device within an international award-winning venture.

ImaginAble Solution’s CEO and founder Lianna Genovese, an alumnus of The Clinic @ Mac’s Residency and Health Ventures programs, recently represented Canada at the 2021 Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA). Her invention, Guided Hands, won the Innovation Award.

The GSEA is a global competition for students who own and operate a business while attending college or university. The annual event is hosted by Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) – a support network of 15,000+ entrepreneurs in 61 countries. GSEA ranks competitors on business fundamentals as well as the spirit and personality the entrepreneurs bring to their businesses.

“My core values are passion, compassion, and serving others,” Lianna said.

She developed Guided Hands after meeting a woman, Elissa, with primary generalized dystonia. Elissa loved to paint but experienced involuntary curling in her fingers, hand and arm fatigue, and limited hand mobility which made it difficult to grasp a paintbrush. Guided Hands improves the quality of life for people living with Cerebral Palsy, Huntington’s Disease, ALS, arthritis, and stroke by allowing them to write, draw, paint, and use a touch-screen device.

Genovese started her trek to the global final with an application to compete in the GSEA Toronto chapter final. After her selection as a finalist, she pitched Guided Hands in hopes of winning a $10,000 prize and the chance to advance to the Canadian finals.

ImaginAble Solutions was not selected as the winner in Toronto but its CEO left an impression on the judges.

“As I was reflecting on the event, I got an email from the judges and the organizers,” Lianna described. “They reviewed my video again and all agreed that they loved my passion, energy, and company. They decided to make an exception and send me to the Canadian final.”

Genovese’s warmth, curiosity, hard work, and dedication have been a few of the driving forces behind the success of her company thus far. Most recently, ImaginAble Solutions was a finalist at the Enactus Student Entrepreneur National Competition and the 2020 Synapse Life Sciences Competition. Guided Hands was also named “Most Innovative” at the Universities 21 RISE Global Competition in 2020.

“It was a very close race for one and two,” said Nick Iozzo, founder and CEO of DPM Energy and EO Toronto’s GSEA program champion. “The winner had a more viable business, but Lianna had more of the spirit and culture of entrepreneurship. She is creating something that she has a clear passion for.”

The near miss made Genovese deep dive into the feedback she received and rally her expansive network of mentors to craft her best pitch to date.

“[In the Canadian final] I competed against six students, and I was the underdog because I didn’t win from my city – I was just kind of there,” she laughed. “I knew I had to work twice as hard. I wanted to prove myself in this competition and create the most awareness for Guided Hands.”

Not only did Lianna top the Toronto finalist at the national competition, but she also topped everyone else. She won the national title, $10,000 grand prize, and a ticket to the global GSEA event.

On May 4, 2021, 38 students from 38 countries competed in the virtual GSEA finals. Representing Canada, Lianna won the Innovation Award – an award recognizing the student entrepreneur who has built a business that creatively improves a process, product, method, or system.

“It was an amazing experience and it made me realize the support that I have from mentors, family, friends, advisors, and organizations like McMaster, The Clinic @ Mac, and The Forge,” she said. “The most valuable mentors I’ve had are the ones who take into consideration my company’s growth alongside my personal growth. One of the mentors that did that for me was Karen Scraba. She was so encouraging and recognized the personal growth that I was making which just inspired me to keep going and keep becoming a better leader for my team.”

Karen Scraba joined the Michael G. DeGroote Health Innovation, Commercialization & Entrepreneurship (Health ICE) team in the summer of 2020 as an innovation coach in the pilot of The Clinic @ Mac’s Residency Program. Since then, she has become a lead of The Clinic @ Mac and used her career’s worth of experience in clinical diagnostics, medical device sales, marketing, clinical education, and alliance management to coach up and coming health start-ups in the McMaster University community.

“At one of our meetings, Lianna was weighing her education needs against the pull of her burgeoning venture,” Scraba recalled of a pinnacle shift in Genovese’s mindset. “Watching and listening to Lianna while she contemplated some difficult decisions that she must make to achieve the future she envisioned, prompted me to tell her what I was seeing: ‘Lianna, you are now thinking like a leader.’”

“Whenever I’m stressed out with school I tend to work on my company because I feel like I’m making progress. I feel like I’m making a change and I’m doing something I’m passionate about,” Lianna said. “After a long day of schoolwork, I love answering emails, making connections, finalizing pilots – this is my passion and if I can get a chance to do it in a hectic day, it makes me happy.”

Guided Hands is currently undergoing pilot testing at several hospital sites and rehabilitation centres across North America. It is also available for pre-order on the ImaginAble Solutions website.

Lianna Genovese’s three takeaways from her GSEA experience:
  1. Surround yourself with other student entrepreneurs – “You will experience the same problems and the same challenges and having a support network is invaluable.”
  2. “Flow like water” – “When I didn’t win the Toronto finals, I was really upset. I had to ask myself ‘what did you learn from this experience that will make you successful in your next one?’ It was great for my personal growth, but also from a business perspective I still got great feedback from the judges on how to grow my company and what gaps I need to fill.”
  3. Transform your passion into your profession – “[The judges] wanted to get to know the student, they wanted to know what values they had, what was important to them, why they were inspired, what keeps them going. It’s very important to show your passion about something and let that drive you forward in everything that you do.”

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