CEO & Head Designer at Canaria Technologies and Women in Technology’s 2018 Startup Entrepreneur of the Year
The catalyst for Canaria was the worst day at work I ever had.
Today, I’m the CEO of a Queensland company building innovative medical devices that sit at the crossroads of the space industry, the resources sector, medicine and cutting edge AI. But on the day I quit my last job, I never could have seen myself in this position.
I was working as an art dealer in Central London at the time, and I’d been asked to validate the authenticity of an Elizabethan portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh. I had spent the last week going back and forth between the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery and liaising with authenticators to take chemical samples from the portrait and date when the pigments were from. Finally, I confirmed that it was real. It was the sort of find that comes along once a decade.
When you come across something like that, you hope that the collector who purchases it will be as emotionally invested in it as you are — that they’ll care about the work and protect it and lend it out to galleries and touring exhibitions when the time comes. This portrait, however, was immediately purchased by a Saudi prince to hang in the toilet of a castle he had just bought, where it would most likely be wrecked within 10 years and lost forever.
It might sound like a First World problem, but this threw me over the edge. I was putting so much love and care into these precious pieces of art and design history, and the buyers just didn’t care. I wasn’t getting any satisfaction out of my work. I quit the industry that day and decided to do something that really mattered — I just didn’t know what that would be.
I called in a favour with a friend of mine, a fashion photographer who had just bought a new house in the countryside with a spare garage, and asked if I could stay there for six months while I worked out what I was going to do next. My background had been in fashion, publishing and art, and initially, I thought I might become a full-time professional artist. But while I was researching my first collection, I found myself gravitating towards technology.
I had learned how to code in Java when I was very young, and it had always been a peripheral interest of mine, but now I was reading everything I could on artificial intelligence and the ethics and design principles of medical devices. Six months in the garage turned into nine months while I immersed myself in this world.
I don’t do things by halves, so at the end of those nine months, I entered the 2016 NASA International Space Apps Challenge, a global hackathon for coders, scientists, designers and makers. I met the eventual co-founder of Canaria Technologies, electronics engineer Dr Robert Finean, in the course of that Challenge. We clicked immediately, and we decided to work together to solve the dual problems NASA had identified — finding a more comfortable way to log astronauts’ vital medical data without impeding their work, and identifying hazardous pockets of CO2 that build up within spacecrafts.
Our solution was the prototype for the Canaria Earpiece, a tiny, hearing aid-sized device worn behind the concha of the ear that can monitor vital signs and carbon dioxide levels. Of the 1,200 projects presented at that year’s Challenge, the Canaria Earpiece was the global winner for Best Use of Hardware.
The earpiece itself is actually based on an ear cuff from Alexander McQueen’s Autumn-Winter 2006 collection. I remembered I had worn those ear cuffs and they were just so comfortable, and now that I had been studying medical device design, I realised why that was — it was because there are no nerve endings around the cartilage there. We could position a device there and not only would it be comfortable for the wearer, but the signal would also be less subject to the noise artifacts you get with a device that you wear on your wrist and shake around a lot. McQueen had accidentally stumbled upon the most ergonomic and accurate way to gather vital signs from the human body; he just didn’t realise it.
Nobody else taking part in the Challenge had approached it from that perspective. That became the design mantra for Canaria Technologies — we would look outside our own industry and towards avant-garde design, art history and haute couture construction methods to find solutions to problems that nobody else has been able to crack.
When we won the NASA award, Rob and I had to decide if we would develop the earpiece as a research project for the space sector, or start our own commercial company and find practical uses for it here on Earth. Ultimately, that was an easy decision to make, because if we focused on space exploration, there were only ever going to be six people aboard the International Space Station at any one time who were actually using our technology. That’s a niche audience, to say the least.
We quickly realised there were applications for the technology that went far beyond the scope of the NASA project. Essentially, Canaria Technologies is a predictive biometrics company — our devices monitor the wearer’s vital signs and then use machine learning to predict medical incidents. We did a lot of research to determine what the biggest problem was that we could solve with our technology, and we determined it was cognitive fatigue in the mining sector.
Cognitive fatigue currently accounts for two thirds of all industrial accidents in Australia that result in loss of life and financial loss, and people have been trying to solve the problem for decades, mostly without success. When we started doing site visits, we found that heat exhaustion is also a major problem on mine sites that hasn’t been addressed properly, so we started building the Canaria Puck, a wearable device that’s slightly larger than the Canaria Earpiece and can simultaneously predict incidents of cognitive fatigue and heat exhaustion with medical-grade levels of accuracy.
It’s a device that pushes known technology to its absolute limits — it operates with a two-second delay on its real-time data stream, for example, whereas YouTube has a 15-second delay on its livestreams.
The design of the Puck is inspired by 1940s minimalist sculpture in Europe and the bases of Corinthian columns from the Roman Empire, and the dashboard is inspired by 1920s Bauhaus graphic design, but it all looks very modern. We’re currently piloting the Puck in the field — it’s the first of our predictive wearable devices that’s ready for deployment in extreme environments, and we’ll be officially launching it very soon at an event in Brisbane.
We’ve been based in Brisbane since 2017, and it’s been great for us. The overheads are much lower than in London or New York or Sydney; the Queensland government is very supportive of technology companies through investment and subsidies; and the resources sector — which has a very good track record of adapting new technologies quickly — is here in our backyard.
We love working with the resources sector. Most engineers are lured by the bright, flashing lights of consumer tech, but the reality is that for the most part, they’re not solving any actual problems and they’re competing with the likes of Apple. The resources sector, on the other hand, has real problems and a real willingness to invest in solutions.
Our aim is to become the world leader in predictive biometric systems. I got into technology because I wanted to do something that mattered, and that’s what I’ve been able to do with Canaria Technologies — we’re building technology to solve fatal problems in the most extreme conditions and environments on Earth, and we’re in it for the long run.
The Canaria Puck will be launched on November 7. Canaria is currently taking pre-orders for the Canaria Earpiece, due for deployment in 2021. For more information, visit canariatechnologies.com.