Private research funding “allows flexibility in a way that most other funding sources do not,” says Gillian Hayes, UCI’s Robert A. & Barbara L. Kleist Chair in Informatics, who develops assistive and educational technologies for “those who don’t have a voice, the underrepresented and the underserved.” Steve Zylius / UCI

Professor Gillian Hayes is a risk-taker. Her pursuit of what she calls “wacky ideas” has resulted in products that improve quality of life for the disabled and those caring for them: a remotely controlled harness that lets blind children go canoeing; an app to store medical records for children with autism that saves parents time and simplifies interaction with doctors; an app that teaches and reminds autistic youth about common hygiene practices.

Government funding for experimental research benefiting such niche markets is scarce. Instead, Hayes, the Robert A. & Barbara L. Kleist Chair in Informatics at UCI, and her graduate students depend on donors, foundations and corporations. Their supporters include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Google, Autism Speaks and Microsoft.

Hayes is particularly thankful for the philanthropic aid she’s received from private sources, such as the Kleists, which has allowed her to “take risks on things that I wouldn’t do otherwise, like some of my research projects.”

This type of funding tends to foster collaboration, and Hayes happily interacts with her donors via monthly meetings, weekly phone calls and daily emails. Their insights help her calibrate her work for maximum impact in the daily lives of the disabled.

“I think Bob [Kleist] and I have a shared vision of the world in which technology should be used to assist those who don’t have a voice, the underrepresented and the underserved,” Hayes says.

“We’re also partnering closely with local organizations,” she adds, “which means we need to be adaptable and agile in our response to their needs and input. Foundation funding allows flexibility in a way that most other funding sources do not.”

The connections Hayes makes with her backers have even led her to become an entrepreneur. She is chief science officer at Tiwahe Technology, a high-tech design and consulting firm specializing in autism and other assistive and educational technologies.

But at UCI, her focus is on translating sometimes unconventional ideas into solutions for real-world problems – work made possible by the generosity of private supporters.

“Philanthropic aid is an incredibly powerful gift,” Hayes says. “It not only enables our lab research, but also helps our engagement with communities around Orange County and beyond that serve those with autism, severe visual impairments and more.”