Three years out of Waterloo Engineering’s Mechatronics program, 25-year-old CEO Stephen Lake is sitting in an interview pod in the middle of the meticulously renovated office building that serves as the main floor of Thalmic Labs, the company he co-founded in 2012. He’s texting his assistant about fast-tracking the delivery of a Myo gesture control armband so the Dean of Engineering at University of Waterloo can have one while she’s at Tesla’s Palo Alto showroom giving presentations to the local alumni. Having the dean of Canada’s premier engineering faculty wear a Myo in a showroom owned by Elon Musk, the technology visionary whom Lake greatly admires, pleases him. After all, Lake and his co-founders (Aaron Grant and Matt Bailey) spent four years as Waterloo Engineering’s Mechatronics students, which uniquely prepared the trio to invent the Myo armband.
Myo uses electric signals from muscles
The Myo is ground-breaking gesture control engineering that uses the electric signals generated by forearm muscles to wirelessly control electronic devices such as computers, smart phones, home automation, gaming systems, remote control vehicles, presentations, and surgical equipment. Myo changes the game when it comes to human-technology interaction. In January 2015, Kitchener-based Thalmic Labs was half way through shipping the first 50,000 Myo pre-orders they had on the books since first launching three years ago. In their first month, the Jedi-like ability to control electronic devices with a wave of your hand proved irresistible to 10,000 early adopters who were willing to wait a year or more to get their hands on this sleek technology. Soon, the Myo became the darling of tech bloggers and reviewers everywhere. Lake was called “the real Tony Stark” by Britain’s Money Maker magazine while investors and venture capitalists paid attention to the young start up that had just finished a stint at the legendary Y Combinator. In mid-2013, Thalmic Labs raised $14.5 million, allowing them to go into full production.
By December of 2013, more than 1,000 alpha versions of the Myo were dispatched to developers so they could get a jump on creating third-party applications. Deliveries to consumers who pre-ordered began in earnest in fall 2014. Amazon will begin shipping Myo in March 2015 for $199 each.
Hands on experience was key in Myo future
To invent a technology and grow a start up is a monumental challenge that doesn’t seem to faze the unflappable Lake. He possesses the demeanour of man who has seen the future and has acquired all the skills and talents needed to grow a small tech start up into a behemoth of dizzying proportions. He acknowledges he used his time wisely at Waterloo Engineering, not so much on academics but ensuring he hoovered up as much knowledge as he could during each of his multiple co-op work terms.
“I had a great time at Waterloo Engineering.
I loved the Mechatronics program and how hands on it was. Every semester we had some kind of project whether it was first year building LEGO robots to more advance things like fire-fighting robots in third year or Capstone Design in fourth year. I took everything I could from these projects, the international exchanges and the co-op terms. I rolled up my sleeves and just dug into whatever I was interested in,” says Lake.(University of Waterloo operates the world’s largest co-operative education program that gives students up to two years of hands-on work experience).
Co-op experiences built confidence
As a co-op student, he spent four months at General Dynamics, as part of the systems integration team designing the CH-148 Maritime Helicopter. In 2008, his co-op was working on lunar rovers at the Canadian Space Agency. The following spring he was designing a MRI-based system for imaging and intervention of prostate cancer. Another co-op was at The Hospital for Sick Children to help develop a paediatric MRI-compatible surgical robot. Shortly thereafter, Lake, still a student, had gained so much experience and confidence he took it upon himself to orchestrate a four-month stint at Germany’s DLR, where he designed and created a prototype a hand-held wireless control interface for a surgical robot.
Despite standing offers for employment from all his co-op employers, (close to 93% of Waterloo Engineering graduates are employed within six months of graduating, while others pursue post graduate education) , Lake knew that he wanted to build his own company. During his fourth year Capstone Design project at Waterloo Engineering he and Bailey, along with two others, developed a wearable system for the vision impaired that allows the user to independently navigate in an urban environment. It was this school project that led them to the possibility of creating wearable technology that could interact with other technology along with the confidence they gained from their extensive co-op experiences – that led to the creation of the Myo, which is shaping the future of human-computer interaction.
Swinging for the fences with Myo
The future is dazzling for Lake and Thalmic. Superstar DJ Armin Van Buren has been using a Myo to control his phantasmagorical light shows. During January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Lake and his co-founders got celebrity treatment when a group spotted them out on the streets and began loudly chanting , “Go Myo! ” genuinely surprising the remarkably humble Canadian trio of inventors.
Thalmic has set their sights on growth and aren’t shy about it — they are swinging for the fences. When faced with the question “What would your next move be if Thalmic were bought by Google?” it’s apparent that Lake and his team have already pondered this prospect over a few late night beers. “Or if we bought Google,” Lake smiles broadly, confident in his knowledge that in the tech world, anything is possible.