For years, Renishaki Kamal watched her nephew Kavin struggle. He is autistic and couldn’t talk, had trouble learning sign language and, most strikingly, could rarely sit without anxiously clapping his hands, flapping his arms or kicking his feet. Desperate to alleviate his stress, Kamal sketched an image of something she called the Footsie.
A patent is still pending for the shoebox-sized device, which, on top, is a set of rollers covered in padding. Kids can drag their feet over the padding or flip the toy over to reveal a pedal, which they can push with their foot to move the toy back and forth over a flat surface while they remain seated.
Playing with the toy helps with motor skills and increases blood circulation in the feet—a body part Kamal says is often neglected. “Children who fall on the spectrum of autism don’t get enough stimulation on their soles, so the rollers and the repetitive movement in their ankles that they get from the toy is important.”
Kamal, a sociology and geography graduate, had never built a prototype. Then she joined Conestoga College’s Enterprise Catalyst program. Started in 2014, the initiative helps post-secondary students and graduates launch businesses by providing mentorship, technical support and access to lab space. “They really helped me kick-start my idea,” says Kamal, a University of Waterloo graduate who works full-time at her Toronto-based company Fidget Toys Ltd. “Woodworking students at the college built prototypes and made modifications, and I got the electronics and circuits built through students as part of their master’s [in embedded systems development].”
There was also help with funding from advisers who alerted her to pitching competitions, through which she won about $60,000. There was $25,000 from the Communitech Women Entrepreneurs Bootcamp pitch competition and $3,000 from Conestoga’s Pitch Day event. The AC JumpStart program at the University of Waterloo gave her $30,000 after she put up her own $30,000, the bulk of which she had from the other competitions. “I feel like [advisers] had a Post-It note that said ‘Fidget Toys Ltd., Renish’ on it and were always forwarding opportunities or making connections for me,” says Kamal.
Fidget Toys consultant and digital communications graduate Joseph Fernando says that in a city where the tech and manufacturing sectors are crowded with start-ups vying for attention, Conestoga College gave the young company a much-needed support system. “Having an incubator program backing up a start-up is huge,” he says. “It’s like having a big stamp of approval, especially when they’re saying, ‘Here are funds’ or ‘Here are doors we can open up for you.’ ”
The college’s president, John Tibbits, says the Kitchener, Ont.-based polytechnic was eager to start the program because, he estimates, 20 per cent of the region’s workforce is involved in manufacturing and tech, but American companies are poaching the area’s talent. A slow Canadian economy and high youth unemployment rate, he adds, are making it more difficult for students. “If we can help [students] get their own employment through their own company, I think we are helping them and helping the economy.”
Since the program launched, it has helped about 30 start-ups develop everything from water bottles with built-in fruit infusers to shoe inserts with sensors that enhance sports performance.
Kamal has 3,686 pre-orders for her toy, some from as far as Germany and Dubai, where autism centres are placing multiple orders. With a few more rounds of quality-assurance tests to go, Kamal is hoping the toy will be released here in December.
Until then, Kavin, now nine, is content to play with a prototype. “Seven to nine minutes was his average sit time,” says Kamal. “Now, he can sit down for 47 to 49 minutes.” But the “priceless” moment was seeing Kavin pick up and play with his toy for the first time without any prodding. “It ignited my powerful ‘why’—the why I’m doing what I’m doing.”