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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Young inventor’s Ability App gains traction

Alex Knoll, 10, of Post Falls addressed the teachers at North Idaho STEM Charter Academy in Rathdrum on Tuesday, Oct. 6. He has developed an app to help people with disabilities navigate public spaces.  (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Alexander Knoll stayed after school one day recently to have a little chat with educators at the North Idaho STEM Charter Academy in Rathdrum.

“I love helping people and I’m excited to tell you about the app I’m trying to develop called Ability App,” the Post Falls fifth-grader said. “The idea is simple …”

This bright 10-year-old with red hair and freckles is getting good at addressing groups of adults, explaining his big idea and appearing confident and composed.

“The simple-to-use app can be accessed for free on any computer or handheld device …”

In two weeks, Alex and his parents will jet off to Dublin, Ireland, so he can continue wowing people – this time, at the world’s largest Web conference – with his invention to help people with disabilities and their caregivers navigate shopping, dining, transportation, employment and other aspects of everyday life.

“I believe we have the power to make the world a better place for those who need help,” he said in the presentation at his school.

His inspiration for Ability App was watching 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 wondered if there was an app to help people learn about access before they go somewhere, and when he realized there wasn’t, he set out to make one.

Much like Yelp is to eating out, Ability App would 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. It also would contain information on grocery delivery, occupational therapy, transportation and mobility, and disability-friendly job listings, among other services.

Alex even 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 Alex on the computer.

He has had a whirlwind year. Last March, Ability App took best in show at Invent Idaho, a statewide student invention competition. He got to explain his project to 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,” said Beth Brubaker, the state coordinator of Invent Idaho and a project specialist at STEM Charter School.

Over the summer, Alex was named grand champion of I Cubed online challenge, a budding student invention competition whose theme this year was special needs.

In August, he presented Ability App to a crowd of entrepreneurs and technology experts at the Think Big Festival in Coeur d’Alene. In September, he donned his business suit and spoke before University of Idaho computer science students and faculty in Moscow.

He’s even mastering the art of humility.

“It’s been a good challenge,” Alex said of the whole experience. “It’s been nice helping people.”

Over the year he has met people with disabilities and learned about their challenges. A family friend who is paraplegic told Alex 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.

Many have said they would see value in Ability App if he can develop and launch it.

“They’ve really liked the concept of the app and thought it would help them a lot,” Alex said. “That makes me happy that they would use it. A lot of them can’t even leave their home because there isn’t a lot they can access.”

Alex this year also has met a few tech industry leaders who have offered advice or pledged to help make Ability App a reality. They include Marc Boudria, director of research and development at Chaotic Moon Studios, a Texas-based Web development firm with insights on improving the app user experience; and Christine Fox, assistant director for policy and analysis at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

At the Think Big Festival he met Guy Fraker, the founder and chief operating officer of Senndex, an Illinois-based company that designs algorithms for analyzing social media data. Fraker offered to partner with Alex to provide background checks on service providers that would appear on the app.

“He said it had the potential to impact 1 billion lives over a 10-year period,” Alex recalled.

Brubaker said she sees the possibilities as well. “I can’t wait to see where this goes. I can picture the Ability App being on everyone’s phone, as common as Yelp.”

To take his idea to the next level, Alex needs financial backing. In early November he hopes to talk with potential investors at Web Summit, a gathering of 30,000 people in Dublin. He will present Ability App for one day and have two more days to meet with anyone interested in teaming up with him.

“He’s learned a lot in the way that it’s a challenge to open a new business and to get something off the ground,” said his father, Brian Knoll. “There’s a lot to it, especially something as large a scale as Ability App is.”

Even with all the attention Ability App has gained, Alex has his sights set on a more traditional career.

“I want to be a car designer,” he said, noting his hero is Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX. “I probably have to get a little better with math if I want to do that.”