Kumaran Thillainadarajah, 30, is founder and chief executive officer of Smart Skin Technologies Inc. in Fredericton. A pressure-sensitive skin he developed for a university project using sensor nanotechnology won numerous awards and was swiftly adapted for commercial applications, such as troubleshooting bottlenecks in beverage production. By inserting dummy bottles or cans wrapped with pressure-sensitive membranes into a production line, a manufacturer can gauge and adjust for pressure on the containers as they move along the line, reducing breakage and cleanup by up to 50 per cent.
I came to Canada in 2004 [from Sri Lanka] as an international computer engineering student, to the University of New Brunswick (UNB). As a 2008 summer research student in the Applied Nano Lab with Felipe Chibante [UNB's Richard J. Currie Research Chair in Nanotechnology], we worked on material and created a sensor. We entered business-plan competitions using concepts and ideas on how we could commercialize it that fall, and in 2009's winter term I started the company. I was 22 years old. "Smart skin" is a common term; [that is] why we use the Quantifeel System for commercial products – we quantify force and pressure.
Felipe gave students the freedom to be absorbed. The original purpose of my project was a skin that was mechanically solid, but I was more interested in electrical properties using sensors and he was very supportive. I never finished my degree; it's not exactly a recipe for success, but I was taking a year or two to see what Smart Skin could be. I might go back to school to do something else.
With prosthetics, commercializing technology would take a long time to get to market, in a small market, so difficult to build the company around. A platform technology has many applications, more of a hindrance in the beginning than a blessing.
Partnering with a larger company would help us to achieve our goals faster. Our focus is building a business solving real problems; in doing that, opportunities will come along. Our focus on industrial packaging is foreign to venture funds that focus on pure software.
Smart Skin is used by six of the top 10 beer and soft-drink manufacturers, brands with 1,500 plants around the world, 60 per cent of the market. These are very large companies and they have no information on how [their production] lines perform. For the first time, we're able to give them incredible insight that tells them exactly what causes breakage and damage. Up until now, state-of-the-art meant experienced operators who listen to the noise that motors make, and glass clinking, and they're making changes based on opinions. Every customer is different, every container has different characteristics and problems. We learned when we solve a problem in glass, it doesn't necessarily transfer to aluminum cans. We're just getting into wine – for our product, it needs to be a high-speed line.
I've been quite fortunate in my life. That's one of the cool things about a place where every day I'm learning something new. I was fortunate because I've been surrounded by really smart people, much older, much wiser people. People in Canada are so nice. When I was 23 and had this idea, I thought could turn into something, I was overwhelmed by how many people wanted to help me, for no reason other than wanting to see me succeed. I was a little bit "what's the catch here?" All of this helped me get to where I am today.
The perfect market is finding one that's good enough to start in. You need to get going, start – there's lots of reasons why you could delay, do more research, try to get a market – but this one [packaging] works.
Looking at potential uses [of Smart Skin] for smartphones was exciting, talking to the biggest brands in the world, but we weren't making any money. We switched from that huge billion-dollar market to golf.
None of us at the company really play golf – I'm not a big drinker, either – so for the application [measuring grip pressure], we had to learn the lingo and understand the game enough for conversation. Every now and then someone would say "Do you want to play with us?" Uh, no.
We opened an office in Germany because it's an important cultural market, the home of beer. Many original equipment manufacturers are headquartered there. It's our base of operations for Europe.
We would love to diversify a little bit [the makeup of our management and board, which is mostly white and male]. We do have a couple of seats open, for the right people, at some point. In our staff of 15, 12 are engineers.
I love it here. I've lived in Fredericton longer than anywhere else. I was born in Nigeria and my family travelled a lot. I spent a couple of years in England, seven years in Trinidad, three in the Maldives and five in Sri Lanka.
I don't really do much else. I don't have much of a personal life. Maybe travel. When you're in the office [from] 6 a.m. to 6 or 10 p.m., it's pretty hard on your social life.
As told to Halifax-based freelance journalist Cynthia Martin.
This interview has been edited and condensed.