Meet Tom. He’s a Grade 9 student in Calgary, Alberta that just might change the world. Last fall, he was part of the team that won StartUp Weekend EDU Calgary with an innovative application for myoelectric sensors. Where will he go next? An international exchange to France is in the works for this summer, he’s working on designing a new and smarter wheelchair, and a long-term goal is to find a cure for blindness. And he hasn’t even hit high school yet. Learn more about Tom’s story below…
Q: Why did you choose to become a part of StartUp Weekend EDU?
A: I heard about StartUp Weekend from a family friend, and I love to try new things. I thought it sounded cool. I’m always trying to make the world better and I thought this would be the quickest way to get people to hear about how I would like to change the world. I just decided that I would dive right in.
Q: What was a highlight of your StartUp Weekend experience?
A: At the beginning of StartUp Weekend, when people were coming up to me and wanted to be part of my team and people liked my idea – that really changed my way of thinking. I started thinking, “I could actually do this.” The other big part of StartUp Weekend for me was at the end, when my idea won – that wasn’t the important part though, the part that was important was with my team. There were a lot of people around me that wanted me to continue the idea, refine it, and go to market with it. That really encouraged me to get other ideas and continue this idea throughout my entrepreneurial ventures.
Q: What other things did you learn from StartUp Weekend?
Any idea can be a good idea if you are willing to constantly pivot, change it and always think about how you can make it better. It’s actually quite easy to get a concept and customer validation, if you know where to look. For example, say you come up with an idea for implanting a cell phone into your hand. Your customers could be first responders, because they wouldn’t have to be holding a cell phone to be using it. But if you don’t actually talk to them, you won’t be able to get their opinions and you will actually be narrowing your demographic that you can sell (or give, or donate) your product to.
Q: I’m curious about the competitive nature of StartUp Weekend. Are you someone that enjoys that?
A: Not at all. I do not enjoy competitive anything. I like going through things at my own pace. I didn’t really enjoy the pace of StartUp Weekend, but I understand why it had to be like that. I’m really not a competitive person, but I do think that you have to be competitive with yourself. You always have to be making your ideas better, and you have to know what your competition is doing. You always have to be able to make something better; you have to make your ideas better than your competition’s.
Q: What are some new entrepreneurial ventures that you’re currently working on?
A: The biggest thing I’m currently working on is a stair-climbing wheelchair. The problem is that people who are in wheelchairs have troubles with stairs. My solution for this problem is a wheelchair that’s able to climb stairs and also be an off-road wheelchair that can be driven inside. It has a shorter wheel base. Most of the off-road wheelchairs that are around are basically a box with a seat on them, but this will be a wheelchair that can adjust its wheel base, can load itself into the back of a car, will easily go up and down stairs, and it’ll also have capabilities to work with your Smart phone. All the drive systems and how it’s going to turn – I’m trying to perfect that with my dad. My dad inspires me; I think a lot like him, in the sense that we’re always trying to make the world a better place. My dad will use this wheelchair. This will be for him.
Q: Do you like to base your ideas off of other things, or do you like to dream up things that don’t exist yet?
A: I always try to take the science or the concepts from one thing and put it into another. Something like a Smart Watch kind of idea, and how that could be used for seniors like a help button. They could use the heart rate monitor so the person wouldn’t even have to press a button to send out a help signal. I always try to take the science from one thing and put it in another.
Q: What words would you use to describe yourself, or the type of person who makes a great entrepreneur?
A: Stubborn. You have to be stubborn. You have to be constantly seeing failure, and thinking of ways around it. You need to be constantly observant in the world around you, so you can actively see the problems and try to find solutions. Once you’ve got an idea, talk to people and see if they like it. For an inventor, if something breaks, you have to go out of your way to not buy a replacement. If it’s something like the chain guide on a bike, if it breaks, you have to figure out how to fix it yourself. That’s because if you start thinking about smaller things, you eventually get to bigger things.
Q: Do you think that you have an entrepreneurial spirit, and what does that mean to you?
A: I guess I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I do think that it’s part of me. I learned it from my dad – constantly building things and tinkering with things, always making stuff better. An entrepreneurial spirit means constantly questioning the world around you, constantly noticing what’s happening around you, keeping up with the latest technologies on things so that if something’s just emerging, you can think of a way to apply it somewhere different.
Q: Do you think that individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit interact with other people differently?
A: I find that confidence is often attributed to entrepreneurial spirit. You can have the greatest idea, but if you’re too shy, you won’t pitch it, so you have to be able to be confident in what you think. I actually had a terrible fear of public speaking up until – actually, I got over it during StartUp Weekend. I sort of had the mental process of “if they’re not going to like it, they’re not going to like it.” They’re not going to boo you off the stage, which I was sort of afraid of. I got over it, and now I’m not really afraid of talking to large groups or anything like that. I really have a leg up in terms of speaking to large groups of adults, because I’m 14, but I’m giving a speech to a large group of adults. They’re going to have a little more sympathy for me if I mess up, than if I was an adult in front of a large group of adults. That’s what got me through StartUp Weekend.
Q: If you were going to give advice to someone looking to become an entrepreneur, what advice would you give?
A: Don’t hold yourself back. If you have an idea, pitch it. Even if you think it’s the worst idea, but it could solve a problem, pitch it. Just dive in headfirst, and always be comfortable adapting all along the way.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about some of the failures you have experienced? Have you had any bad ideas that you’ve just tried out anyway?
A: I’ve broken a lot of stuff. I guess I haven’t really had any spectacular failures (yet!). I guess what I would say is, always think about safety first – that’s how you avoid the spectacular failures!
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about going and fixing something?
A: When you’ve actually done it and it’s better than what is available – having that moment.
Q: What areas of science interest you the most, and do you think that science is important as an entrepreneur?
A: I like chemistry; I like taking two things and making something completely new. I like physics, the mechanics of movement and building things really appeals to me. I’m not really that interested in bio, but I’m going to need to take it. Science is important because you can’t solve a problem in the world such as building a new type of prosthetic leg with a background in French literature. Don’t get me wrong, French literature is cool (and I do hope to go to France this summer on an exchange!). I’m just not sure how it will help solve engineering problems. So I think that science is paramount in learning in schools, because then kids can go out into the world and solve problems that they see, and they won’t be restricted by “not knowing”.
Q: Do you think that entrepreneurial spirit is taught in school?
Q: Where do you learn these skills then?
A: The right/wrong/black/white way of looking at things isn’t very helpful in terms of entrepreneurship, because it’s extremely grey. There’s always going to be (hopefully) at least one person that likes your idea, but in schools it’s black/white/yes/no. Learning how to get more people to like your idea, that would be a better way of teaching things in schools. Say you’re doing a class in science, and you get rudimentary circuit parts where you have to create the best circuit for solving the problem of turning on six light bulbs all at different times with one switch. In terms of determining who constructed the best circuit gives more people, maybe even the entire class (not just the teacher) a chance to vote on your idea/circuit and get their input. Having more people like your idea (or solution) is a better way of teaching entrepreneurial spirit in schools, because that way you can get the customer validation without any real customers.
Having a class where students are given a problem and told to solve it in the best way possible, then they take it to the gymnasium and people in the school look at it and say if they like the idea – that would be a great way to teach entrepreneurial spirit in schools and teach problem solving to students.
Q: Are there any problems that you see in the world today that you would dream of finding a solution to someday?
A: Blindness. They’ve started coming up with technologies to help people who are blind, like a circuit board that’s placed on the tongue that uses electrical impulses. There are also some people who are able to click their tongue and use a sonar type thing that they’ve taught themselves. I’d like to look into that, in terms of making that available to anyone who is blind.
Q: If you could look 10 years into the future, what would be your dream?
A: I would really like to have come up with an idea, have had the world love that idea, but not have my name associated with it. Once the world has accepted an idea, it’s part of the wall of corporation. If I’m not associated with that, I’m really happy because then I can go to the grocery store and pick up milk without anyone following me, I can live a real life. In my ideal world I would start a start-up after high school, be constantly improving that until I’m maybe 50-ish, then pass it on to my successor and spend the rest of my time skiing in the Alps.
Be on the lookout for Tom (and other young entrepreneurs) changing the world!