Charles Deguire – Winner of the Governor General's Innovation Award
The Governor General's Innovation Awards recognize and celebrate outstanding Canadian individuals, teams and organizations — trailblazers and creators who contribute to our country's success, who help shape our future and who inspire the next generation.
Reaching for inspiration
Growing up with three great-uncles who were confined to wheelchairs, living with muscular dystrophy, Charles Deguire learned what ingenuity could produce.
They lived life to the fullest despite their disabilities, getting ever-more powerful wheelchairs as the technology improved and their conditions degenerated from the disease. Deguire noticed there wasn’t much available to compensate for the loss of mobility in their upper bodies, however, although one of them, Uncle Jacques, made his own modifications.
Known to all as Jaco, he declined the fastest, but he was also the family inventor. With no more than a grade 5 education, Jaco fashioned a robotic arm he called the "manipulo" out of items he found around the house and at the local hardware store.
"There was a bicycle cable and a lamp frame, a bunch of windshield wipers and a set of hot-dog pincers. The electronics were in a Tupperware container," Deguire recalls. The contraption worked, allowing Jaco to feed himself, for example. "It changed his life."
Watching his uncle build these rudimentary robotics was equally life-changing for Deguire, then 10 years old. "I was amazed," he says. "It was mind-opening for me to realize you can improve your quality of life with what’s around you."
Deguire was also an inventor. "I was disassembling everything with electronics in it. I had a few shocks already," he allows. He got a Bachelor of electrical engineering at École de Technologies Supérieur in Montreal and did projects on the side with his classmate Louis-Joseph Caron L’Écuyer. In third year they attempted a robot arm. "We made it in a weekend," says Deguire, who was bothered by the lack of robotic devices to assist people in wheelchairs.
"I said, ‘We’re sending robots to space, we’re replacing people with robots in factories, but we’re not using robots to help people.’ It kept me up at night." The two called the invention Jaco and started a company called Kinova Robotics, which today has 65 employees in Boisbriand, north of Montreal. There are plans to double the team and open a new facility by 2017.
Along with the Jaco there is the Mico, a smaller version for reaching items on the wheelchair tray, for instance. Both are easily manipulated using the wheelchair’s controls. In addition to such assistive robotics, Kinova works with organizations like NASA and Google in the area of service robotics, for example doing bomb disposal or managing toxic waste. It is especially focused on surgical robotics, a vast, lucrative and untouched market.
Deguire has done well with support from the government, angel investors and product sales, and plans to go after a first round of venture-capital financing. "You have to make a compelling case," he says. One major frustration, given the aging population, is that Canada has "no clear pathway to integrate innovation in the health-care system," he comments. "If we want technology to save us, we have to make room for it. They need to lower the roadblocks."
This means that while he got funding for the development of Jaco, there is almost no program that finances pilot-projects and helps users pay for the device. After all it could reduce what the government pays for caregivers, while improving people’s independence and well-being.
"I tell the politicians they should stop giving me grants and instead give me orders," he says. "If you want to have an innovation nation, your biggest buyer has to be innovative."
There are many buyers in Europe, fully covered by insurance. Deguire is gratified to hear how the product has changed their lives. One German man is elated that he can lift a beer to his lips and drink rather than using a straw, while a user in Switzerland has returned to landscape painting.
"He’s able not only to feed himself but to return to his passion," Deguire enthuses.
His collaboration with L’Écuyer, today Kinova’s chief technology officer, continues. Deguire says that having such a partner from the start is invaluable for innovation. "It’s a demanding road ahead and you don’t want to travel it alone," he explains. "You’re going to have motivation faster, you learn to share your ideas and accept the ideas of others. You’re going to go farther."
To pursue a venture such as his "you need to be a bit naïve," he says. "If you knew everything that had to be achieved to be successful, it would scare off many people." Indeed Deguire and L’Écuyer watched as fellow graduates landed hot jobs straight out of university, while "we worked 90 hours a week in a basement," says Deguire. He’d like to see innovators get credit even when they fail, so perhaps they are recognized by potential employers. "The lessons you learn are more valuable than any diploma you can get."
He thinks Uncle Jacques, who has passed away, would be proud of his accomplishments. But Deguire won’t be satisfied until assistive devices make people with disabilities as efficient as those without limitations. Further research on artificial intelligence and new interfaces for the robot arm will be supported by the surgical applications that Kinova is developing.
This success story is provided by the Public Policy Forum – an independent, non-governmental organization dedicated to improving the quality of government in Canada through dialogue among leaders from all sectors of Canadian society.