Light through the darkness: How an industrial engineering student’s tragedy led to innovation

Photo illustration in a bathroom with Courtney Burris, Brandon Davis and a framed photo of Courtney's father.

Courtney Burris and business partner Brandon Davis pitched their device The Aiding Arm in this year's Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition. Burris’ late father Robert is pictured in the framed photo. Photo illustration credit: Douglas Levere.

By Nicole Capozziello

Published June 2, 2021

In May of 2020, industrial engineering PhD student Courtney Burris lost her dad Robert after a battle with colon cancer. It was the most difficult experience of her life – and one that she’s found herself sharing over and over during the last year as she’s pitched a device she designed that was inspired by him. 

“Signing up for that initial pitch competition introduced me to all of these cool opportunities and showed me so much of what UB has to offer. In a short time, I’ve made a lot of connections with people, gained insight into how businesses work, and learned about a ton of resources at UB.”
Courtney Burris, PhD student
Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering

“I’ve been able to turn the experience into something incredibly beautiful,” says Burris, who began her entrepreneurial journey by entering the Aging Innovation Challenge last fall. 

“When I was coming up with ideas for the challenge, I thought about what my dad struggled with before he passed,” says Burris. 

She recalled how one of his major challenges had been showering – a common problem for older people, people with physical disabilities, and others with mobility issues – and how demoralizing it was for him. Her solution was “The Aiding Arm,” a clip-on shower chair attachment that preserves independence and privacy while bathing by utilizing a lever that moves a removable showerhead along a track.

This design, coupled with Burris’s passion and compelling story, ended up earning her first place at the Aging Innovation Challenge, presented by Blackstone LaunchPad and the University at Buffalo’s Center for Successful Aging. Since then, she has gone on to participate in other pitch competitions on campus, most recently as a finalist in the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition. Created by the School of Management and the Office of Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships, the Panasci is the largest pitch competition at UB, with the winner receiving over $52k in prizes.

Taking part in these events has been a great way for Burris to garner attention for The Aiding Arm and bring it closer to the reality of helping people in need. It’s also connected her with a supportive community of entrepreneurial-minded people within her department, at Blackstone LaunchPad and throughout UB. 

“Signing up for that initial pitch competition introduced me to all of these cool opportunities and showed me so much of what UB has to offer,” Burris says, who also participated in venture coaching as a part of the Aging Innovation Challenge. “In a short time, I’ve made a lot of connections with people, gained insight into how businesses work, and learned about a ton of resources at UB.”

At first glance, designing and promoting a shower chair attachment might seem far from her work in operations research as a PhD student in industrial engineering. However, constantly seeing the potential for improvement within processes and systems, and creating the technological or methodological innovation to bring about helpful changes, is a cornerstone of the field. 

“Courtney is the perfect example of an entrepreneurial industrial engineer who is destined for success,” says Victor Paquet, professor and chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. “She is a passionate innovator and problem-solver who truly cares about all of those around her.”

Paquet got involved in the project when Burris approached him to discuss her design idea in December of 2020. He was intrigued and eager to know how he and the department could help. 

“I always find it exciting to explore new ideas, specifically ones like Courtney’s that are aimed at benefitting society in meaningful ways,” says Paquet, who offered a modest amount of departmental fund and joined Burris’s advisory board. “I was truly honored to be able to offer advice about how to integrate inclusive design into her showering system.”

Courtney and her dad.

Courtney Burris at home with her dad, Robert.

Burris teamed up with business partner Brandon Davis, a fourth year PhD candidate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, to further develop and promote The Aiding Arm.

Like Burris, Davis has experienced the loss of loved ones who could have benefitted from such a device. The two use their shared struggles as motivation for their business venture, with the goal of improving the quality of life for people who have difficulties with activities of daily living.

In addition to technical support on her product’s design and implementation, Burris got lots of practical knowledge and encouragement from Blackstone LaunchPad, especially from director Hadar Borden. In January, she took part in a two-day Startup Boot Camp in which she was able to network with local entrepreneurs, work through the design and marketing process with a team, and compete for prizes. While it was a confidence boost to win the boot camp competition, Burris’s favorite part was the people. “Right away, I felt like I belonged,” Burris says. “Everyone was so generous with their time and creativity. They would take a step forward, but then reach back to offer a hand.”

Paquet says, “It is my hope that this project will serve to inspire other UB ISE students and faculty to collaborate on other entrepreneurial activities in the future.”

Over the past few months of designing, pitching, and recently filing a provisional patent, Burris has grown to really love entrepreneurship. All of these experiences, including placing first in the WNY region of the New York Business Plan Competition, has driven home the importance of being able to communicate the importance of one’s work, whether it’s a business venture or academic research, simply and engagingly to a wide audience.

“Courtney is coachable and embraces all of the opportunities to learn from each engagement and each competition to further develop her venture to offer the most impact,” says Borden of Burris, who was recently awarded the WNY Prosperity Fellowship for the 2021-2022 academic year. “It’s been a pleasure walking along with Courtney on her entrepreneurial journey. It’s humbling to know that this journey is serving a greater purpose honoring Courtney’s father’s memory and offering a societal impact.” 

Burris and Davis officially incorporated earlier this year. They call their company RHM Innovations Inc., named after the loved ones who’ve inspired their work; the R, is for Burris’s father Robert.

They are currently working on producing a prototype of The Aiding Arm with Tresca Designs, a local firm started by University at Buffalo mechanical engineering alumnus Dan Buckmaster (BS ’18, MS ’20). 

“So many people have come out to support me with this project,” says Burris of the whole experience. “It’s helped with my grieving, and I think my dad would be really proud.”