Back in April of this year, Goodwall partnered with GENiLEM, with support from the cantons of Geneva and Vaud and the accounting firm Berney Associés SA.
Together, we hoped to promote entrepreneurship among students, young professionals, and entrepreneurs in Switzerland by launching the Swiss Futurpreneur Award. The winner of this award would receive a 2,000 CHF cash prize and startup coaching sessions by GENiLEM.
After receiving some great entries (which you can find here), we’re excited to announce that we have a winner! 🥇 🎉
The Winning Pitch
Our champion is Henry Haefliger, an ambitious Swiss-American student from Geneva.
His pitch: the “Keyboard For The Disabled.”
I’ll let Henry explain his winning project to you:
In 2008, out of 6.7 billion humans on the planet, 3 million had arm amputations and 2.4 million were in developing countries. My solution uses a camera with simple #AI motion tracking to locate a residual limb in an image which can then allow a person to interact with a gesture keyboard (like on your phone). Pack this into a small usb device and anyone missing an arm could input keystrokes into their computer as easily as we do. This is much cheaper and therefore more accessible than a full prosthetic limb and could allow these people to obtain jobs that were previously unreachable due to their technical requirements.
I have already started the development of the motion tracking neural network and gesture keyboard which at the moment are running on a raspberry pi. Hopefully, with 2000chf, I could move to a more consumer-ready platform and begin testing and adapting for more people.
A well-deserved congratulations to you, Henry, from all of us here at Goodwall!
An Interview With Henry Haefliger
After his win, I followed up with Henry to learn more about his project. To explain his idea, his background, and his thoughts about Goodwall, Henry kindly agreed to do an interview with me.
Here’s the transcript of our interview, with my questions in bold:
Henry, congratulations again on your win! Before we talk about the award, could you tell me a bit more about yourself and the part of Switzerland you come from?
Of course. I am from both Switzerland and the United States and while I haven’t always lived in Geneva, I was born here in 2003. When I was seven I moved to Shanghai, China where I lived for seven more years. I think that I was incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to experience a different part of the world and for me, it is probably one of the things that will influence me the most for the rest of my life.
The diversity of cultures in the expatriate community there definitely affected the way I approach and view the world. It is also there that I became interested in technology thanks to my math and computer science teacher Mr. Cressey. When I moved back to Switzerland a lot changed. It was nice to be able to see a different part of the world as most of my previous travels were in Asia and Australia but I also had to set out on my own with programming since I didn’t know anyone here who could help me – this has led me to be more active in communities such as GitHub and Stack Exchange as well as on my website.
In Geneva, which is in the south-western, French-speaking part of Switzerland, I have met some really great people as well – I’ve got it all from an actor/doctor to physicists – and it’s nice to live by the lake. Being the city with the second-highest population in the country, it is always quite busy around here so it is just as enjoyable to drive a few hours to the mountains to get a break from the urban life which wasn’t as easy to do in China where everything is much further apart.
Okay, so let’s get to your pitch – quite ambitious and impressive, I might add! You call it the “Keyboard for the Disabled,” and you describe it as a solution using “a camera with simple #AI motion tracking to locate a residual limb in an image which can then allow a person to interact with a gesture keyboard (like on your phone). Pack this into a small USB device and anyone missing an arm could input keystrokes into their computer as easily as we do. This is much cheaper and therefore more accessible than a full prosthetic limb and could allow these people to obtain jobs that were previously unreachable due to their technical requirements.”
Forgive me for my ignorance, but could you perhaps go into more detail on how it works? Me personally, I don’t quite understand the “residual limb,” does that imply eye-tracking, for example?
Well, a “residual limb” is the term for the bit that is left past a healthy joint after an amputation. It is also referred to as a stump. My idea was inspired primarily by two things. A few years ago, I did some volunteer work with an organization called Handivoile that took people with various mental and physical disabilities sailing on lake Geneva. One of the other volunteers there was a retired Swiss Paralympic team member who had no legs or arms and I was thinking to myself that if this guy, who had plenty of character and was clearly very generous, could easily interact with technology, he could probably achieve a lot more than most people on the internet.
The second thing was a project that I worked on. I don’t know if you have seen this video by SpaceX in which Elon Musk demonstrates their internal 3D modeling software which allows users to create parts using just their hands in VR. To me, this was awesome. I was attempting to recreate the hand tracking technology and add it to my 3D graphics library to produce something similar when I had the idea to combine these two experiences.
The theory was that a residual limb – specifically an arm – could be used as a sort of pointer if we could locate the shoulder joint as well as the end of the limb in an image. Once this was done, the person could perform various gestures that the computer would track and then interpret. My mind then went to the keyboard on my phone, which allows you to move your finger in a continuous motion over the characters to spell out a word and so this is what I decided to use the limb tracking for. The software would allow people to draw patterns that correspond to words in the air with their arms in the same way I do with my finger on my phone screen.
With your 2,000 CHF prize, do you think you’ll be able to turn this into a viable product?
The cash prize should definitely allow me to create a complete product by experimenting with better hardware parts, higher performance cloud computing to train the neural network, and better data acquisition. One of the things that I have to look into, however, is distribution, which I think would be best done by getting pre-orders from organizations such as support programs or hospitals as this might require more capital.
You’re using the Raspberry Pi, one of the greatest gadgets of this past decade, especially for those without extensive financial resources. In case there are any tech geeks reading this, could you tell us your setup (e.g., Pi model, peripherals, programs)?
I hate to disappoint but my setup isn’t all that interesting. I have a Pi running Ubuntu server edition. This is one of my favorite operating systems because it makes Linux so incredibly easy to set up, use, and maintain. Then I don’t have any real peripherals, just a Logitech webcam as I am working with items I already had at hand.
Of course, I plan to change this in the near future, I think that for a first version, the Pi is quite handy although a proper camera and 3D printed case to accommodate that are necessary improvements. I have also looked into Nvidia’s Jetson boards because of their hardware acceleration.
On the software and AI side of your project, could you also give us a brief description of the program(s) and platforms you’re using?
So, I am currently working with Python3 as it is the language that I am most familiar with. To facilitate the development of the neural network, I use the frameworks Keras and Tensorflow. My model is based on ResNet, for which the original paper was published in 2015, and is inspired by the work done in a 2018 paper called “GANerated Hands” in which the researchers performed 3D hand tracking with a single camera.
According to the statistics you mentioned, there were 3 million people with arm amputations in 2008, with 2.4 million of them coming from developing countries. How do you see your solution being used? Would it be a cheaper alternative to getting a prosthetic limb or more of something to use before the person gets one?
Well, at the moment there is incredible research going into creating better prosthetic limbs. For example, about a year ago, I saw a paper about repurposing severed nerves to better interact with the new limb. However, this work is still not perfect and even if it was, it would be extremely difficult both financially and technically to get this technology to everyone who needs it.
The way I see my solution is that it is not a fix for all of the problems but rather a means through which everyone can have access to the devices that have become everyday essentials. It is both cheap and easy to set up which means that it can be distributed to many people quickly to provide them with access to a vital part of life while they wait for their prosthetic limbs.
Do you currently work alone on this project, or with any partners?
At the moment, I am working on my idea alone, however, as I say with all of my projects I will always welcome anyone who wants to contribute. For this product specifically, it would be great to have people who are interested in creating a better dataset to improve the accuracy of the limb tracking model. If there is someone who is interested, they can contact me through my website henryhaefliger.com although I cannot really offer more than just credit in return for now.
Have you seen or participated in any other entrepreneurship programs in Switzerland?
Until now, I have not participated in any other competitions in Switzerland although I am aware that there is currently one for high school students hosted by the Business School of Lausanne which has a submission deadline in late January. I did, however, take part in the #beapirate challenge by Moonshot Pirates. This was an international competition that took place between June and July of this year.
Myself and two others, Shizhe from Germany and Armin from Austria developed an autonomous drone to collect waste underwater using weakly supervised learning – a type of machine learning algorithm – and a classification model to sort garbage for recycling. We also got help from Pascal in Germany who created a 3D model for a demo video using Blender. Our project made it to the finals where there were seven different teams all with amazing ideas. The group that finally won had created a mechanical solution to improve the work efficiency of farmers in Africa – an incredible cause.
What inspired you to go in this particular direction (helping people with arm amputations)? What is your biggest inspiration on a day-to-day basis?
As I mentioned before, both my volunteer experience and projects contributed to the formation of the idea. On a day-to-day basis, I do not really have a person pushing me towards this specific project, it just seemed like a concept that had a lot of potential to do good but had not been executed yet. I am, however, surrounded by countless people who inspire me every day, through their sheer goodness, hard work or just by being generally fascinating.
Aside from the 2,000 CHF prize, the Swiss Futurpreneur Award also included coaching workshops offered by GENiLEM on entrepreneurship basics. Were you able to take part in any of these yet? If so, what did you think about them?
I have not yet had the opportunity to participate in any of GENiLEM’s workshops although I have been in contact with them and will be following their December course.
As a Goodwall member, what do you think about our platform? What do you like about it most? What are some areas in which we could improve?
Well, to answer your question, I have to begin by thanking the incredible people I have met on the platform. Two other users: Flavia Wallenhorst, who also participated in the competition, and Patricia Pine were extremely friendly and encouraging. Natalie Beattie, the community manager was also very helpful and welcoming. This has by far been the best part of it. I also love the opportunities, for instance, I found an ad for the KAIROS society talent program on the app, I applied, and after an interview last week, I was accepted.
One of the things I suggested in my post-competition questionnaire was to host competitions similar to the Futurpreneur award, where participants submit a one minute pitch, but for the UN sustainability goals. I think that having one to two per month would be a great, organized way to start a discourse about potential ways to tackle these problems.
GENiLEM (Génération Innovation Lémanique) is a Swiss nonprofit on a mission to increase the chances of startups’ success in and around Switzerland, particularly in the cantons of Vaud and Geneva. GENiLEM supports innovators and entrepreneurs at every step of the way, from ideation to advanced business development, thus contributing to the dynamism of the Swiss economy.
GENiLEM offers entrepreneurs expert advice, training, coaching/mentorship, business development consultations, and access to their network of business leaders and partners. Today, GENiLEM is supported by more than 40 sponsors who share their vision of innovation towards revitalization of the national economy.