In 2002, Dekar's grandfather was sick with a neuromuscular disease called corticobasal degeneration, which, over time, can progressively affect cognitive and motor skills, among other symptoms.
"I witnessed firsthand how hard it was for him to get to a point where he had to rely on my grandmother to spoon-feed him in front of friends and family," Dekar said. "He just loathed this."
As a volunteer at nursing homes and hospitals, he also witnessed how patients were relying on caregivers to feed them. As a college freshman at the University of Dayton in Ohio, he was exposed to the problem once again after a local woman spoke to Dekar's adviser about having a student build a mechanical device that could allow her 6-year-old daughter to eat with more independence.
"I watched a video of this girl, and it was at that point that it really clicked to me that there were a lot of people who needed this type of assistance," he said.
Dekar found there were approximately 4 million to 5 million people in the United States alone who needed assistance during mealtime.
"For this to be a basic human need — a fundamental freedom and an intimate experience, not to mention one of life's greatest pleasures — it just didn't make sense to me," said Dekar, adding that he became "obsessed and ferociously driven" to do something about it.
In 2006, Dekar designed the first prototype for Obi, an assistive robotic dining companion that allows users to regain some eating independence. In 2010, he founded Desin LLC with his father, Tom, launching the first-generation Obi device in 2016.
"So many assistive technologies are function-first or function-only, and so I was inspired to create an empowered experience that people would really desire to use, not just have to use," he said.
To use Obi, a caregiver preps the food to an appropriate size — somewhere between a pea and a grape, Dekar said — then places the meal within four bowls. If it is someone's first time using Obi, the device can be switched to "teach" mode, where the caregiver directs the arm by hand and moves it up to the user's mouth.
"Let it go, and you're all set," Dekar said. "It will deliver food to that spot every time until you reteach it."
Obi is compatible with a number of accessibility switches to accommodate various disabilities. All of the food contact parts are made from FDA-approved polypropylene. The device, which operates on a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, is also microwave-, dishwasher- and freezer-safe.
The company, which is distributing the product globally with six international distributors and three domestic distributors, has 11 patents for Obi and has been fully funded for three years, he said.
"We want to become a consumer robotics company," said Dekar, adding that the company is now focusing on designing a second-generation Obi. "We want to play in this health care space because health care has gotten so expensive here in the U.S."