by Deborah M. Marko
BRIDGETON – As a designer, Jacob Riley-Wasserman looks for unique ways to make new connections.
As a cancer patient, the 23-year-old Bridgeton resident is focused on helping to fund research that will lead to a cure.
His latest project, “Flip4Cancer,” allows him to do both thanks to the Star Spangled Spatula he designed.
Riley-Wasserman talks matter-of-factly about his cancer diagnosis, which came last September just as he started graduate school at New York University. He was excited about being part of a new Interactive Telecommunications program that married art, design and technology.
But a health screening, taken because he was having difficulty swallowing, revealed he had esophageal cancer. Instead of school, Riley-Wasserman’s education continued at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center.
“It’s been an extremely eye-opening process since I was diagnosed,” Riley-Wasserman said in an interview at his home.
“It’s staggering how many people have cancer,” he said. “I go on just the gastric cancer floor at Penn and it’s packed; there’s other floors for all different kinds of cancers, and I’m sure that they are packed as well.”
But he also sees hope.
“There is so much going on in the cancer world, especially in the research,” Riley-Wasserman said. “There are a lot of promising things going on and a lot of different types of treatment that we haven’t been able to use before.”
Riley-Wasserman wanted to help and found a novel way to do so with his patented Star Spangled Spatula.
He developed the patriotic grilling accessory while at Rhode Island School of Design. In a furniture design course, the final project was to create something using metal.
“I ended up building a grill that wasn’t too successful,” he said. With the scraps, however, he made the laser-cut accessory.
“I feel it is the designer’s job to make connections; America and grilling have become synonymous at this point,” he said. “That connection was almost there.”
Riley-Wasserman pulled the concepts together with his spatula and its Americana graphic design.
“All anyone could talk about when we had the final critique was the spatula,” he said.
After Riley-Wasserman graduated from the design school, he caught the attention of Brooklyn-based Areaware with some help from his teachers.
“They work with a lot of designers and have a submissions program,” he said. “I emailed them a picture and they asked me to send them one and I did. And they said come in, and I came in and they said we are going to make it.”
In summer 2012, the Star Spangled Spatula hit the market, selling for $75. Riley-Wasserman started to get royalty checks each quarter as a result of the licensing deal. There also is a plastic version that sells for about $8.
It’s been featured in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living and Bon Appétit. It’s sold at Urban Outfitters, Williams-Sonoma and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
While undergoing cancer treatment, Riley-Wasserman saw a connection and launched Flip4Cancer, wanting to put his creativity toward something good.
Not only does he donate 50 percent of his royalties to Penn’s cancer program, he also launched a Flip4Cancer.com website to encourage people to donate to cancer research.
“Buy A Spatula — Kill Cancer,” the site reads.
Proceeds will help with research and developing new treatments.
Cancer has been “a fascinating eye-opening experience,” Riley-Wasserman said, detailing his experience with proton therapy.
“We’re are like these machines,” he said. “When something goes wrong, we have to take them apart, diagnose them and figure out how to get them back into working condition.”
Riley-Wasserman’s treatment had taken many turns, including an unexpected metastasis in his liver and possible inclusion in a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.
“As designers we are problem-solvers, and doctors are problem-solvers as well,” he said. “So when I talk about how being a designer is the need to make these connections, large reaching connections between two very different fields, I feel like that’s the connection that’s being made here with me.
“Doctors are taking a completely different approach to try to figure something out and solve the problem.”
During treatment, he was inspired by the acrylic compensator blocks through which radiation is beamed.
Riley-Wasserman is talking about using the blocks for an art installation project, inspired by seeing a pallet filled with used blocks at the hospital.
The custom-built, potentially lifesaving devices had “all different people’s names on them, all different shapes and all different sizes, and I just saw it as an incredible thing.”
“People should see this,” he thought. “It’s a sign of how cancer treatment is going right now — we are not treating every patient the same, we are treating each patient individually.”
Riley-Wasserman asked to take his compensator blocks home, and the hospital took his suggestion to allow other patients to do the same after treatment for a small donation to the cancer center. The idea is featured on the University of Pennsylvania Health System news blog.
At 23, Riley-Wasserman has achieved much.
“But I really want to do more,” he said. “Right now, I’m working on three or four projects at a time, progressing each one every day. It’s just part of me to keep my hands busy and keep my mind busy; it really helps me get through right now,” he said.
“Flip4Cancer is going to grow, no doubt about that,” he added.
He’s looking into launching new handcrafted products so he’s able to donate a larger percentage to cancer research. One idea is a phone cover featuring his Star Spangled Spatula design.
“I think it’s funny to have a phone case that’s based on a spatula,” he said. But he thinks it might attract buyers because it’s a timeless design.
On Tuesday, the results of Riley-Wasserman’s latest scan came back. The news was good, he said, noting his condition is now stable and he’s preparing to resume his studies by heading back to NYU in the fall.