When Herschel Ruben ’21 (Product Design BFA) was trying to formulate his senior thesis, he first chose to focus on Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Ruben said he wanted a topic he could be objective about, but found it didn’t spark his passion.
Despite spending his entire fall semester on that first thesis topic, Ruben shifted gears, and went with something a little closer to home, something he could have a strong voice on.
Ruben, who is on the autism spectrum, began instead designing a desk chair for the neurodivergent community.
The idea for Compressent Co.—Designing for Neurodiversity, one of this year’s finalists in the UP/Start Venture Competition, came after he was on an online forum talking with others who are neurodivergent. One guy he talked to, Ruben said, spoke about how at the end of the day, he would come home and pile all of his clothes from his closet on top of his body while laying in bed, to help create enough weight and pressure to help calm themself down.
“And I was like, what if they didn't have to come home and spend three to four hours, literally compressing themselves to get that sense of calm?” Ruben said. “What if they were just able to do that throughout the day, in a way that was subtle and didn't stigmatize them, in a dignified way? Their quality of life would be that much greater … And that was one of those lightbulb moments.”
In came the idea for Compressent Co.
Chairs currently on the market that are designed for neurodiverse individuals are often built for kids, and could seem out of place in a traditional office setting, Ruben said.
He got to work on designing a desk chair for adults that includes a mechanism to squeeze someone—to put pressure on their body at the thighs and shoulders—in a way that provides the relief they need to help with overstimulation, akin to the experience of a weighted blanket might, but in a way that “maintains someone’s dignity,” he said.
“You don't have to wait all day to get that kind of relief—you can have that relief as needed while you’re at your job working,” he added.
For Ruben, coming to MICA was a journey. For the first 19 years of his life, Ruben said, he was nearly nonverbal. By the time he was 17, he developed a plan of action to figure out how to socially interact with other people, and found his voice.
At 27, he’s gone through both the Community College of Baltimore County and MICA’s Product Design program. After completing his thesis with Compressent Co., and graduating from MICA, Ruben began driving for companies like DoorDash and Uber Eats, before adding in rideshare like Uber, because he wanted to be self-employed.
It was during those drives he began to talk about Compressent Co., and he found the idea resonated with a lot of people.
“I would explain it to people—I'd tell people what it is I'm doing, and what my vision was. And then they'd ask detailed questions, meaning that they were engaged. And I really took that engagement as a sign,” Ruben said.
Ruben already has manufacturers lined up, both for right out of the gate production, and also production down the line.
But funding from UP/Start would help move the process—and his dream—along.
“To be able to sit in this chair that I thought of … it'd be incredible,” Ruben said.