Alexander Knoll, a 12-year-old inventor and entrepreneur from Post Falls, grew emotional when he met his idol this week.
Dressed in a suit and blue tie, the boy with red hair and freckles broke out in tears when he sat down next to Ellen DeGeneres on her show, which was taped Tuesday and aired Thursday afternoon.
“You’re my hero, and just thank you so much for having me on. This is incredible,” said Knoll, a sixth-grader at Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy.
DeGeneres invited Knoll on her show to talk about his creation, Ability App, a free app and website that will help people with disabilities navigate public spaces and find safe, reliable services and employment opportunities.
“It’s amazing,” she told him as her studio audience cheered.
DeGeneres said she would introduce Knoll to her digital team to help his ideas flourish. She also surprised him with $25,000, courtesy of Shutterfly, to help get the app off the ground.
“You’re my hero,” she told Knoll at the end of the segment.
An avid fan of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Knoll met her for the first time as he walked onto the set in Burbank, California, with the cameras rolling.
“It was very overwhelming, but it was so amazing seeing Ellen standing up from her chair and the audience,” Knoll said Thursday after school. “All of it was coming at once and it was incredible.”
In an October 2015 profile in The Spokesman-Review, Knoll explained that he was inspired to develop the program as he watched a man in a wheelchair struggle to open the door of his grandparents’ old Black Sheep Sporting Goods store in Coeur d’Alene, before they opened a new store with accessible features. Alex figured there could be a way to help people learn about access before they go somewhere, so he set out to create it.
As Yelp is to eating out, Ability App is intended to give users such details as the locations of wheelchair ramps, accessible boat launches and hiking trails, service animal-friendly locations and restaurants with Braille menus. Other features may include grocery delivery, occupational therapy, transportation and mobility, and disability-friendly job listings.
Knoll also has imagined voice-activation and eye-tracking features for users who don’t have use of their limbs. His passion for drawing and design led him to create a clever logo that appears on the app’s Facebook page, website and business cards for the venture. His mother, Anne Knoll, has been at his side, assisting him on the computer.
Knoll has met people with disabilities and learned about their challenges. A family friend who is paraplegic told him she could have used his app during a recent trip to the East Coast, staying in unfamiliar towns along the way, to buy a wheelchair-accessible vehicle.
In March 2015, Ability App took best in show at Invent Idaho, a statewide student invention competition. Knoll got to explain his project to Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, first lady Lori Otter and state lawmakers at the state Capitol in Boise.
The judges “were just unanimously blown away, impressed, with his idea and with the heart that he has for others,” Beth Brubaker said at the time. She is the state coordinator of Invent Idaho and a project specialist at STEM Charter School in Rathdrum, where Knoll previously was enrolled.
That summer, Knoll was named grand champion of I Cubed online challenge, a budding student invention competition whose theme that year was special needs. In August 2015, he presented Ability App to a crowd of entrepreneurs and technology experts at the Think Big Festival in Coeur d’Alene. A month later, Knoll donned his business suit and spoke before University of Idaho computer science students and faculty in Moscow.
“I believe we have the power to make the world a better place for those who need help,” he said in one of his many presentations.
Knoll has been looking for financial backing to bring his invention to life. In November 2015, he and his family traveled to Ireland to speak with potential investors at Web Summit, the world’s largest Web conference, in Dublin.
Knoll also is raising money for Ability App via a GoFundMe campaign. As of Thursday evening, he had received just over $2,400, most of that in the hours after the episode aired.
“We want to make it the best it can be for people with disabilities,” he said. “It’s going to cost a lot of money with all of the … employees and the servers and the location. It costs a lot of money.”
Knoll said the $25,000 from DeGeneres will be a big help in launching his app.
“I’m going to work on it as hard as I can and as fast as I can until we get it out,” he said.