Startup community news from Houston, Texas, USA

Houston Hackathon winner CarEye wants to eliminate hot-car related deaths

Houston Hackathon winner CarEye wants to eliminate hot-car related deaths

On an episode of ABC’s What Would You Do, the producing team placed a fake baby in a parked car near a boulevard. As people walked by, the producers played baby crying sounds from an iPod, trying to see if passerby would stop to save the infant. Most people did not stop upon hearing the cries, or were unsure of what to do. As one woman in the video stated, “You just assume that someone’s in the car with the child… you don’t imagine that there’s a child left in a car by itself.”

Children are left in cars by themselves every year. According to San Francisco State University’s Department of Earth and Climate Science, there were 44 heatstroke deaths of children left in cars in the United States in 2013. From 1998-present, there were 613 heatstroke deaths of children left in cars in the United States, averaging 38 fatalities each year. The trend in children’s heatstroke related deaths in cars does not seem to be declining. As stated in a study by Catherine McLaren, Jan Null, and James Quinn in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in 2003, the total number of child heatstroke related deaths in cars was “42, up from a national average of 29 for the past 5 years.” The study goes on to state the previous research “found that on days when ambient temperatures exceed 86 degrees Fahrenheit, the internal temperatures of the vehicle quickly reached 134 to 154 degrees Fahrenheit.”

In fact, even if the weather is clear and sunny, with ambient temperatures ranging from 72 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit, “the rate of temperature rise inside the vehicle was not significantly different,” the study found. In Texas alone, San Francisco State University’s Department of Geosciences reports 86 children died from hyperthermia after being left unattended in a car, from 1998 to 2012.

Human error occurs. As KidsAndCars.org states, even “the best of parents or caregivers can unknowingly leave a sleeping baby in a car.” How do we account for  this human error?

That’s where CarEye steps in.

Developed by Houstonian electrical engineer Rocco De Grazia at the 2014 Houston Hackathon, the device, which won second place Sunday in the City Award for the best pitch to Mayor Parker category, measures heat and uses infrared technology to determine if there’s a living being in a car. Once the two measurements hit a critical point, the device calls a pre-programmed number, such as the caregiver’s or the authorities, to avoid tragedy, De Grazia said. De Grazia explains how Car Eye works in the video below:

De Grazia said a newspaper report on a woman who lost her baby after accidentally leaving the child in a car first triggered the idea to make CarEye.

“I didn’t know how big the problem was until I went to this website, that’s a meterologist, I believe [he's] in the University of San Francisco – he basically tracks the history and patterns of [the issue], and it just happened to be a bigger problem than I thought it was,” De Grazia said. “So basically, starting from that website, I did some more research trying to find patterns of why this happens. The bottom line seems to be that it’s not necessarily because of bad parenting, it’s just people get distracted.”

Before the Hackathon, De Grazia said he thought of the components he would need to build the device in less than 24 hours.”

“A hardware project is very different from a software project, in that you have to have to components ready to go,” De Grazia said. “So I went online, purchased whatever I thought would be necessary, and 11 o’clock on Saturday, I got to it.”

Getting CarEye on the market is a two-stage process, De Grazia said.

“Number one, due to the urgency, I made it available to whoever wants to build [it],” De Grazia said. “And to that extent, we did so on Saturday – right after I published on the Hackathon, I uploaded the source code to GitHub … a webpage where you go and publish whatever code you made that made the world a better place. By doing that, it basically certifies your product as an open-source device.”

Due to the urgency … I uploaded the source code to GitHub.

According to De Grazia, by putting the special code he made for CarEye in open source, it allows people to look at the code and better it.

“They actually fork, quote unquote, they fork off of my code, and develop a better version, that perhaps I’m not seeing because of time constraints during Hackathon, because of whatever reason,” De Grazia said. “It’s a constant development process to make the product better and more reliable.”

The second part of the process is commercialization.

“Not everyone has the skills, or the time, or the willingness to build [a CarEye],” De Grazia said.

According to De Grazia, the second annual Houston Hackathon gave him validation for his project.

“[The Hackathon] definitely gave me the incentive [for CarEye], but more than the incentive, it gave me the validation – the validation that the product is in fact something that people need,” De Grazia said. “If we can bring this product to a point where it’s small enough, reliable enough, and cheap enough that customers don’t have to think twice about getting it, I think we can make it.”

De Grazia holds the CarEye.

De Grazia holds the CarEye.

De Grazia self-funded his project for under $100.

“Because I was funding the project on my own, of course I wanted to keep the budget low and do as much manual labor as I could do instead of going out and purchas[ing] very expensive components,” De Grazia said. “With more advanced components, [the building of CarEye] can probably be done quicker and more easily.”

De Grazia said the response to CarEye was positive.

“Right after the [Hackathon] finished, a lot of people approached me to basically congratulate me and also to tell me that they were sure that I could make it into the final three best projects… [the positive feedback] started right on Saturday, as soon as the [Hackathon] started, peope would approach me and say, ‘Hey, you’re actually making something, [a] tangible product,’ to which my response was, ‘Yeah, I’m making something [using] hardware, but this is perhaps not the best forum for it, because a lot of the prizes would go to software and services apps,’” De Grazia said. “It’s unfortunate that they didn’t have a prize [category] for hardware. I was surprised when I won just because of that. I thought all of the prizes were going to go to the services category.”

DeGrazia said it is hard to forecast how long commercialization would take.

“I have to actually take exactly [the parts] I need, no more than that, to make it cheaper, make it into one board, so I’m now combining two boards into one smaller board, and then send it to a fabricator so they can mass produce it. That is usually a long process unless you have the resources that Apple has, or Sony has. So, to be honest, I don’t know. I could be three months, depending on funding, people’s interest and whatnot, it could be six months, it could be a year, depending on the help that I get.”

Kickstarter could be an option to accelerate the commercialization process, due to the quick access to funding if it goes well, De Grazia said.

“However, Kickstarter has its tricks, and that is, you need a lot of prep work to make it right,” De Grazia said. “The other thing that you can’t do with Kickstarter is to forecast exactly how much funding you’re going to get. You can set a minimum, and base your plans off of that, but if its lower, they’re not going to give you anything, if its higher, then it messes up your entire schedule. With hardware, it’s not as flexible as software, because you pre-contract manufacturing time on the machines, actual physical machines. So, if you forecast for a thousand devices, and then you end up wanting 2000, its a whole new… timing that they have to schedule. These are machines that are working 24/7… it’s a very structured process. Kickstarter seems to me like the quickest, most obvious way to go to market.”

From a philosophical point of view, De Grazia said it seems to him that the patent process is a complicated and expensive way to protect one’s inventions.

“I’ve been told that there are some alternatives,” De Grazia said. “One of them is to make it open source, and by that, you, to an extent, protect your invention, based on the fact that you have to be credited if anyone wants to make use of the [open source].”

De Grazia said that while patents seem to be a viable option to protect the invention and his future plans to go to market as a whole, he has not delved into them to see if the option, at least right now, is feasible.

“To give you an example, if I had a thousand dollars, I would put it into making a small prototype versus expending that on lawyers to make [a] patent,” De Grazia said.

De Grazia praised the 2014 Houston Hackathon as a success.

“I felt well taken care of while I was there,” De Grazia said. “The coffee was great, the food was great, the environment was… very conductive to create, and we definitely felt the support from the community and the people [who were] there for us.”

However, De Grazia said the Hackathon needs some hardware incentives.

“I know a lot of people who are in the hardware/maker community. It’s not always about electronics… there has to be some kind of prize for making stuff,” De Grazia said.

De Grazia, who was born in a small town in Venezuela, moved to the United States when he was 17 and attended the University of Houston with an academic scholarship.

“That’s one of the things that I’m looking forward to help with – the fact that if you’re a maker in one these countires, namely every country in South America, a lot of countries in Europe, especially in Africa – if you want to go into this, you have no options, you have no way to make [hardware], simply because you cannot get access to components,” De Grazia said. “So you have to find something else to do as a little kid. That’s unfortunate.”

De Grazia said that in the future, he wants to open spaces in Venezuela to help those that do want to make electronics and tangible things.

“I believe in Venezuela there are only two places where you can go and 3D print something,” De Grazia said. “Here, I can go to a website called, “Get XYZ,” and get access to printers that are actually in my neighborhood, and just send them the file, they print it for me, I pay them in person, and I get my product in four hours or less. That is really cool. If I was in Venezuela and I was a little kid who wanted to invent something, and I know how to design in 3D, but I want to actually make it a product, I have no options.”

De Grazia said that to the point that we engage with little kids at an early age and give them easy access to the resources and components they need, the number and quality of inventors in the world will increase.

De Grazia’s uncle was a professor of engineering about 40 miles away from his town in Venezuela, and, in 1995, asked him if he knew what internet was. Soon, De Grazia said, his whole world changed.

“All I could think about at that age was cars, mechanical things. And he said, ‘Do you know what internet is?’ and I’m like, ‘No, no idea.’ So he took me to a computer lab at the university he used to teach [at], and when I saw that I could get resources from the U.S. or from any part of the world, and intellectual knowledge immediately, I saw the message – this is what I want to do. This is a way for me to get access to knowledge that people here in my town do not necessarily have.”

De Grazia said that as an inventor and maker, one has to find ways to impact people.

“I try to do my best during [my] presentation[s] to give a story of something that people can relate to, and not necessarily focus on all the scientific and technical details.”