By Cecilia Nasmith
Baltimore resident Amy Arthur is observing an anniversary this month – one year since she got the inspiration for the Claxon.
Arthur is proud to have invented the world's first hands-free personal-safety alarm, and it was inspired by a television feature she watched while working out at the gym about the increased risks hotel employees are facing these days as they work alone.
Amy with the device threaded onto a running shoe
The result is a small plastic teardrop-shaped device not much bigger than a guitar pick. Inside are the sensors and workings that will allow the user to send out a piercing 110-decibel alert when he or she is in danger. And thanks to brackets on the back that a shoelace can be threaded through, it can be activated hands-free by a certain motion of the foot.
“You don't have to press a button, you don't have to pull anything, you don't have to find it in your purse or pocket,” Arthur said in a recent interview.
“It's the world's first hands-free personal-safety device, and it's kind of cool to have this happening in Northumberland.”
The inspiration came last August. By November, the device had a name – the Claxon – and Arthur was ready to enter the Pitch To The Chief innovation competition at Venture 13, where inventors were invited to make the case on behalf of their inventions to Cobourg Police Chief Kai Liu. The Claxon won.
Arthur has been no stranger to Venture 13 since then, with the production capacity of its microfactory and the Northumberland Maker Lab. Not only is this an invaluable resource for 3D printing, but also for the expertise of its members.
The former and present circuit boards, with Amy's fingernail providing scale - the new one is 30% smaller than the original
“You learn something new every time you go – they are so unbelievably smart,” she said.
Arthur has continued to work on refining and perfecting the Claxon. For one thing, the circuit boards she uses now are actually 30% smaller. And she is working on the algorithm associated with activating the alarm. It has to be a movement the user does not typically make (to avoid false alarms which drain the power), but also a movement that would probably not occur by accident or chance. She will be working with more and more sophisticated logarithms to get it right.
In short, the first prototype stage is done and the Claxon is a proven concept.
“We have engineered it so, when you set it in action, the alarm goes off. We have figured out the 3D printing and what it will look like,” she said with satisfaction.
Now comes the challenging process of the bigger pitch – attending other innovation competitions (in Ontario, perhaps even Canada-wide), exploring crowd-funding options, as well as making presentations to police stations, victims' services, family-violence prevention agencies and the like to see if she might work with them on some kind of pilot project.
It will be strenuous. But Arthur runs and works out and is in amazing shape, in spite of living with chronic pain for almost nine years now.
Arthur was a competitive gymnast as a teenager, so she was used to challenging her body to the max (and paying for it with the odd ache or pain). Then one day she woke up to pain that was far beyond the norm. She initially could control it to some extent with anti-inflammatories but, in the ensuing years, it has only progressed.
A gymnast expects to have occasional pain and tends to power through it. But when it all began, she recalls a longing for a role model just for her particular situation – an athlete with the same aspirations she had who went on to achieve those lofty goals in spite of chronic illness.
With no such ideal to be found, Arthur resolved to be her own role model, graduating from McMaster University with a bachelor-of-science degree and inventing devices that improve people's lives.
How brackets on the back of the Claxon allow users to thread a shoelace through it for secure attachment
“Whether you are sick or you are healthy, you have to live life – it's the only journey you have,” she stated.
“I have persevered through a lot.”
Inventing the Claxon was certainly a goal achieved, but it wasn't her first invention. That would be the blue-light glasses to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (colloquially known as the winter blues).
This evolved from a project for a neuroscience class at McMaster, and her first idea was concussion glasses. People with concussions are told to stay in a dark room, but the isolation that results can be devastating. She envisioned dark glasses with all areas around the eyes shut out to keep light from entering.
As she mapped out that one, she changed her focus to helping people with SAD. Blue-light boxes have been promising therapies, but they require users to spend 30 minutes each morning sitting next to them.
“Who has the time!” she said.
With devices that attach to the bottom of glasses frames (skate-guard-style) to emit the blue light, she figured, you could get your daily therapy on the train during your morning commute.
The process was expensive, but a wonderful learning experience in so many ways – meeting with professors, visiting the engineering school for assistance, talking with business people and lawyers.
“I had a great time,” she declared, adding that it would all pay off again two and a half years later.
Watching that feature on the hotel workers appealed to Arthur's entrepreneurial spirit. She knew the ideal alarm could not be hand-held, because their hands were occupied with work. She thought of creating a special shoe that would sound if the wearer tapped the heel to the ground, but what if the worker were not wearing that particular shoe when danger threatened.
She went back to the drawing board envisioning a device that would clip on to a shoe, then decided threading shoelaces through a bracket would be more secure.
Then she realized it's not just hotel workers – and not just women, for that matter – who face personal danger.
Making a difference in people's lives is nothing new for Arthur. She entered McMaster with the plan of becoming a doctor and, through all the courses and all the health struggles, was warmed by the thought of one day helping other people get better. Then she encountered a particular psychology professor who introduced her to forensic psychology.
“It blew my mind how fascinating the field was, always evolving with things like determining what a missing child would look like 10 years later or why a criminal did a certain crime.”
When she got the chance to tour the Millhaven correctional facility, she confessed that she almost didn't want to leave.
“I fell in love with the environment of not knowing what's around the corner – why this person who murdered two people does not have the same brain as that person who murdered five.”
With that, forensic psychology became one of the passions she hopes to pursue, alongside working on her inventions.
“I hope to pursue both,” she stressed - “not just one or the other. I have a few inventions up my sleeve still.
“My goal is to try to help just one person, save someone's life with this alarm or make someone's life better. I guess that is what I was put on this earth for.”
Arthur still makes the time to stay fit despite her busy schedule which, these days, includes tutoring data-analysis students at UOIT (“I love algebra, anything with math or sciences,” she said).
But it remains a matter of honour to her not to let her health challenges stand in her way.
“Health is not the deciding factor in whether or not you are going to have a life that is successful, and a life that you are proud of,” she said.
“Don't wait to be healed to start serving humanity.”