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Siblings invent walking stick holder to give away to seniors

They now run firm with schoolmates to make device that has won awards here and abroad

Theresa Tan on 29 Jul 2019

The Straits Times


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When Seng Ian Hao was nine years old and his sister Ing Le was seven, they witnessed a fall at a hawker centre that changed the course of their young lives.


An elderly woman was trying to pick up her walking stick, which she had leant against her table but had slid to the ground. As she bent over, she lost her balance and fell, hitting her head.


The incident galvanised them into action - they decided to invent a device to prevent others from having the same mishap.


Ian Hao, now 15, told The Straits Times: "Our hearts broke when we saw her fall. The walking stick should not be a hazard due to its inability to stand upright stably when it is not held by the user. We felt it needed to be reinvented."


Two weeks later, he built a clip from Lego bricks that could be attached to a walking stick so that the stick could be secured to any surface.


He and his sister called their "portable mobility aid holder" Qanemate, an acronym for Quality Ambulatory Novel Equipment. "It's like a mate for your cane," he said.


The second Qanemate prototype was modified from their mother's hair clip. Besides decorating it, Ing Le also experimented with different materials to give it a better grip.


Each time they came up with a new prototype, the siblings visited nursing homes to ask for feedback from the seniors there.


Today, the Qanemate is in its 16th prototype, made of polycarbonate and manufactured in China. About 1,000 Qanemates have been given away to seniors in Singapore and countries as far as Finland.


To finance this largesse, the Seng siblings have used half of their Chinese New Year red packet collections each year.


Some 500 pieces were also sponsored by insurance firms AXA Singapore and MSIG Singapore. The siblings declined to say how much each Qanemate costs.


But it has won them a bunch of awards here and overseas and they have set up a company, Qanemate. Last month, they also set up a non-profit arm, Qares, where 100 per cent of Qanemate's profits will be channelled.


Their aim is not to make money but to partner more companies and individuals to take their inventions to more seniors.


And to do so, they have roped in their school friends from St Joseph's Institution International (SJII).


Ian Hao is Qanemate's chief executive and Ing Le is the co-founder. Their friends - Brian Tan, who is chief finance officer, Coen Yap, the chief impact officer, and Yuan Jing Shuo, who is part of the design team - are all 15 years old.


Ian Hao, who started a social innovation club at SJII, has had to deal with naysayers.


Brian said: "Ian Hao was mocked by his classmates as some of them felt Qanemate was ridiculous and that we were way too young to invent anything. But he still pressed on. I saw a certain determination in him and he has a sense of filial piety. It is rare for young people to be willing to visit eldercare centres without being nudged by their schools to do so. I felt what he was doing was really noble and I decided to join him."


To detractors, Ian Hao has this to say: "The project is not about me and it's not to make money. It's for the elders, to empower the elders."


The siblings come from a family of doctors. Their grandfather, the late Dr Seng Kwang Meng, was an obstetrician and gynaecologist who took his grandchildren to volunteer help at nursing homes when they were four and two.


The siblings' father is Dr Seng Shay Way, 50, who is also an obstetrician and gynaecologist, and their mother is Dr Loh Yin Sze, 45, a director in a pharmaceutical firm.


"We were taught by our parents and our grandpa to treat elders like our own grandparents. This was nurtured in us since young," Ian Hao said.


Ing Le said she was "quite determined to make a difference" after seeing the elderly woman fall.


The Qanemate is patented in Singapore and it is pending patent status in several other countries. And it has been improved over the years.


For example, a personalised QR code can be installed in the Qanemate for dementia patients so that if they are lost, anyone who finds them can scan the QR code for the family's contact details.


The team also came up with QaneBrella - a walking stick cum umbrella - because they realised many seniors shun walking sticks as they feel they make them look old and frail, Coen said.


The team is now also raising funds for the Singapore Cancer Society through the Give Asia website until the end of next month.


Donors who give $100 and above can get a QaneBrella. So far, over $5,000 has been raised.


The Qanemate team is doing the fund-raising project under the Citi-YMCA Youth for Causes Programme, which promotes social entrepreneurship among youth. The cancer cause is close to their hearts as most of the boys in the team have relatives who suffered from cancer.


Brian said: "Almost every family is affected by cancer and so we want to do as much as we can for them."


Their mentor at Citi Asia, Mr James Keady, praised the Qanemate team for their maturity.


Mr Keady, Citi's director of digital engagement, said: "The calibre of their entrepreneurship is exceptional; it's the best I have seen so far in this programme. What separates them from everyone else is their drive, determination and passion."


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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