It started with a makeshift prosthetic arm made from windshield wipers and bicycle cable. That’s how entrepreneur Charles Deguire first became fascinated by the power and potential of robotics.
Growing up in the 1990s, he spent a lot of time around his three uncles, Jacques, Louis and Jean-Marc, who lived with muscular dystrophy and used wheelchairs to get around. The MacGyvered arm was the work of Jacques, and it made a big impression on eight-year-old Deguire. “Watching my uncle grasp a flower and give it to my grandmother was quite impressive,” he says. “That’s what sparked my interest in applying technology to everyday life.”
Fascinated by robotics, Deguire went on to study electrical engineering at École de technologie supérieure in Montreal. He reconnected with childhood friend Louis-Joseph L’Écuyer, and the pair started working on a robotic arm for people with limited mobility. They founded robotics company Kinova and launched the arm — named Jaco for Deguire’s inventor uncle — in 2010. It could mimic 16 movements of the shoulder, elbow and wrist to help users perform tasks like applying makeup, taking medication and scratching an itch.
Today, Kinova produces robots for use in industry, research and medical settings. Its machines can perform a wide range of functions, including helping surgeons detect lung cancer and assisting people with upper-body limitations to enjoy a meal independently. The company, which is based in Boisbriand, Que., now has a team of 240 employees and sells its technology in close to 40 countries. Its robots are used by organizations including Google and Johns Hopkins University.
Here, Deguire discusses his passion for robots that make a difference, why we shouldn’t fear AI and what impresses him more than cupcake vending machines.
How were you able to launch Jaco while studying for your bachelor’s degree?
After completing our co-op placements in our third year, Louis-Joseph and I started discussing launching a company. The more we talked to potential users, the more obvious it was that the technology was there and we became obsessed with making it a reality. We started to create a prototype and we won a few startup competitions, which got us some more money to develop it. After three years, in the summer of 2010, we got our first customer — in the Netherlands.
Why the Netherlands?
Even though we have community here, Germany and the Netherlands are our biggest markets for assistive technologies, because the costs are covered by medical insurance there. But we’ve seen progress in the past few years on coverage in Quebec, the rest of Canada and the U.S., and we’re proud to deploy our solutions more and more to our families and neighbours.
What are you working on right now?
I’m particularly excited about what we’re doing with the new Monarch Robotic Flexible Endoscopy Platform. We’ve partnered with Johnson & Johnson to bring our expertise in robotics to surgeons. The Monarch Platform is a robotic endoscope that a surgeon can guide through the lungs with a controller while viewing the process on a screen like a video game. The surgeon is in control and the robot works precisely and safely, reaching its target faster and with precision. It was used in Montreal for the first time in early January. We’re proud to export 96 percent of our products outside Canada, but it’s amazing to finally develop amazing technology and bring it back home. We’re moving from improving lives to actually saving lives.
How do you feel about the future of artificial intelligence when it comes to robotics?
I get excited about using robots and AI together. Robots are automated data collection centers and AI requires a lot of data. Robots can also act in real time, based on fast decisions made by AI. When you combine all of that, you can increase resiliency and help users spend less energy to do more tasks. AI is going to allow for a lot of breakthroughs in the coming years.
What do you say to people who fear being replaced by robots in their jobs?
We’re focused on empowering people, not replacing them. A robot is like a personal computer: At the end of the day, it’s a tool. There are so many useful solutions that need to be developed. I want to help my uncles and I want to help surgeons. We want Canadian manufacturers to deploy more robots and help them be more productive. Industries that adopt robots create more jobs. Also, some of the coolest robots I’ve seen help with bomb disposal and nuclear waste. Those impress me the most because you don’t want to put a human in most of those situations. I don’t care about cupcake vending machines. The robots that help prevent injuries and keep humans out of harm’s way are the ones that inspire me.
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Photos courtesy of Kinova