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Autistic lawyer with a prize-winning plan

Lisa M. Daly has developed a shield for the elements.

Lisa M. Daly demonstrates the Sensory Shield prototype on the Metro.

But forget wind, rain and fire. Daly, a Maryland lawyer, wants to protect people from the elements of public transit — the snoop leaning over your shoulder to see what you’re working on, the teen playing an iPod like it’s a boom box and the sandwich-eater whose elbow keeps jabbing you in the side.

With a plastic barrier called the Sensory Shield, Daly took first place in the 2012 Rockville Economic Development Inc.’s StartRight! Business Plan Competition this August. The prize money of $5,000 will help the CEO of Sensory Shield LLC develop the product and a website to sell it to the public.

Daly is autistic and has sensory processing disorder. She originally envisioned the shield as a way to find privacy on her daily Metrorail commute between Rockville and Capitol Hill.

“When you are in places like the Metro, it gives you a little bit more control over your personal space,” she said.

Daly has worked as a nonpartisan appointee for Congress for the past 17 years. She advises two representatives on legislation. The job allows her to be blunt — a plus for someone with autism, she said.

“I love it,” Daly said. “A lot of people with autism, we don’t have much of a filter. I can say, ‘Well that’s a really stupid idea,’ which is not all that great in a law firm. Here, it’s awesome. That is what they want.”

To get to the job she loves, however, she has to take the Metro. During her commute, Daly used to shove notebooks or a piece of cardboard between her and the person sitting next to her.

“It never really worked that well,” Daly said. “I didn’t know what else to do.”

She said her breaking point came last summer when she saw someone urinate on the Metro seat and walk away, only for another passenger to come into the car and sit down on the wet seat.

“I started thinking about how I could have that not happen to me,” Daly said.

Daly contacted a number of engineers and manufacturers and asked them to design a device she could use to protect herself from the crowd during her commute.

The result was a custom-made device that functions somewhat like two plastic boards on a hinge. One side goes down on the seat, and the other side flips up vertically, serving as a barrier between the user and the adjoining seat.

“It was weird to see something that was a picture in my head become a real thing,” Daly said.

The prototype cost Daly several thousand dollars, a price she said she was more than willing to pay.

“I just thought, ‘I don’t want to have to live like this anymore,’” Daly said.

Expanding the product line

She eventually started telling family, friends and therapists about the shield, and they told her they thought it was a product many people would want to buy. Daly said the market includes veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, even testing centers or attorneys who want to work on confidential documents on their commute.

“I was really surprised when a lot of people said they would want this, too,” Daly said.

Daly started attending free or cheap classes on starting a business. She read books. Her fiance helped her on the engineering end, and her son set up social media outreach like a blog and a Facebook page.

She is set to launch a website in October, and she has filed one patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and is planning to file two more this month.

Daly has been working on the venture during her evenings and weekends. She has even taken some of the vacation days she had been saving to work on the project.

“It’s more rewarding,” Daly said. “I would rather do this than watch TV.”

Daly is working with a team of designers to develop a product she can sell to the masses. The shield she has now is tailored for her and the Metro, but she wants to develop a line for different modes of transportation. She also wants to develop shields for other environments, such as double-sided shields for taking tests in classrooms. The shields will also come in different sizes, for adults and children, Daly said.

Daly plans to first release a lightweight, compact shield for airplane travelers.

“The ones we are doing now are much more complicated from an engineering perspective,” Daly said. “We are still working on designs. Even when we come up with a design that works, it also has to be durable. It has to be affordable.”

She said she is not sure yet how much the products will cost since she is still trying to determine what materials to use to make them. She envisions a budget model for occasional travelers and a more expensive version for frequent flyers.

“We are trying to strike a balance and find out what people want,” Daly said.

The plan is for the airline shield to go on sale in eight months to a year, she said. After the first design is finished and she determines the manufacturing cost, Daly said she will figure out how she will finance the business.

“It might go faster depending on how long it takes to figure out all the details,” Daly said. “We are pretty close.”