What if people with carpal tunnel syndrome didn’t have to use computer mice anymore?
That’s the picture 13-year-old Connor Kirby painted when he presented his idea at Volta Labs’ annual pitch conference, winning first place. Essentially, Kirby wants to develop a product that will track the eye movements of computer users with infrared cameras and then move the cursor accordingly.
“Simultaneously, in order to control right clicking, left clicking, and scrolling, a few movement-tracking cameras would track some small ergonomic hand movements so your hands never have to leave the keyboard,” says Kirby. “I’m trying to completely replace the standard computer mouse with a small array of cameras that would sit on top of your monitor.”
Kirby was a participant in Dalhousie’s Collide Winter 2017 program, which provides workshops and events designed to hone entrepreneurial, pitching, and networking skills. It currently falls under the umbrella of the Norman Newman Centre’s Launch Dal program, along with another program called the Creator Series.
Cat Adalay, his neighbour and the founder of tech start-up Aurea, introduced him to the Collide Program. Adalay is also founder of Creator Kids, the original incarnation of The Creator Program. Creator Kids was a program that taught kids 3D printing, 3D modelling, custom circuit creation, and programming. This early version of the program, eventually Thinking Robot Studios took it over and redesigned it as Launch Dal, aimed at kids aged 11 to 14.
“Connor was the original Creator Kid,” says Adalay. “He inspired the idea. I opened it up to a few other kids, they would come in and think about an idea for a company they could start, and then build technology around it.”
Kirby’s work with Adalay began about a year before she launched Creator Kids.
She’s been working in the tech space for a few years, originally focusing on 3D printing and prototyping. Kirby was always interested in whatever she was working on, so whenever she started a project, she’d invite him over to check it out.
In addition to her work at Aurea, Adalay is a prototyping lab assistant with the newest incarnation of the Creator Program. So she was able to vouch for Kirby when he applied for the Collide Series.
“There was some question about his age and his ability as a 13-year-old,” says Adalay. “I said ‘Guys, if there is one person who can really be considered for this program and we can say we really started this person’s career, it’s Connor Kirby.’”
Kirby says he came up with his idea during a brainstorming session with Adalay. But the Collide series gave him the tools he needed: customer discovery techniques, public speaking skills, and a mastery of PowerPoint.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” says Kirby. “I didn’t even know how to use PowerPoint at that point. I went in completely clueless.”
For Kirby, the customer discovery process was one of the hardest parts of the program. His mother, who suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, inspired him. Kirby saw the possibilities for strain relief early on, and decided to approach physiotherapy clinics for their thoughts.
“I did a couple of handouts, and I got my parents to drive me around to some physiotherapy clinics,” says Kirby. “I spoke to a bunch of the receptionists and other staff and they were great… I got some feedback. I was very nervous though, because that was before we even started the pitching. I was just going out and talking to random people I’d never met before.”
The legwork helped Kirby make a big change to his product idea, which originally included a wristband that controlled any scrolling and clicking. With all of this research and a lot of new presentation skills under his belt, Kirby decided to enter the Volta Labs pitch competition.
According to judge Katelyn Bourgoin, the competition was stiff, but Kirby’s presentation had “all the DNA of a strong pitch.” Bourgoin says the judges asked themselves, “Were we so impressed because he did a really good job for a 13-year- old? Or did he do a really good job for anyone of any age?”
Ultimately, they decided the pitch was really good regardless of age. “I think he’s got the full package,” says Bourgoin. “I think he’s a good developer, and he’s obviously self-taught. Should he decide to go to school for that, it will just augment it. But I think he’s got a really great grasp of how to start a company, addressing a market need, and developing the story behind it. There were some really strong pitches that day, but his storytelling ability and his enthusiasm really put him over the edge.”
Kirby’s win at Volta Labs earned him a $500 Visa card, but he’s hoping to do well enough in some upcoming competitions that he’ll be able to put together the funds he needs to start building prototypes. Then he’ll be able to start product testing.
Adalay thinks Kirby’s product may have more to offer than carpal tunnel syndrome relief: “When I heard Connor’s idea, I thought, ‘This could be the next step in how we interact with technology. This could be something huge.’”