COEUR d'ALENE - When 10-year-old Alex Knoll realized that life can be pretty rough for disabled people, he set out to change things.
The incoming North Idaho STEM Charter Academy fifth-grader was recently named the 2015 I Cubed Challenge national grand champion for creating the "Ability App," which epitomizes the I Cubed 2015 theme of "special needs."
"It's a free app or website that will help disabled people navigate different businesses around their home so they can look for all the disability-friendly features and services that would help them get around," Alex said, explaining that the app will show users specific amenities such as wheelchair ramps and automatic doors, as well as help them find nearby services that will suit their needs.
In a world where thousands of apps pop up seemingly every moment, this idea had not yet been innovated. Alex, of Post Falls, is pioneering into new territory and blazing a trail that will utilize technology to assist the disabled.
"I thought of it when I saw a man in a wheelchair and he couldn't open the manual door because he was in that wheelchair and he was struggling to open it," Alex said. "That day, I went home to do some research to see if there was an app or website that could have told him told him what other stores around the area had automatic doors so he could actually access the building. I couldn't find anything. It blew our minds because there was nothing that would have helped him, so I thought of this."
Alex was invited to speak at the recent Think Big Festival at North Idaho College, where numerous big minds in technology and business came together to network, share ideas, emphasize the importance of science and much more. The well-spoken, red-spiky-haired young man presented his invention and made many friends in the process.
One of his new associates is published author, entrepreneur and innovation consultant Guy Fraker, who is the co-founder and COO of Senndex, a company that specializes in designing predictive algorithms to analyze large volumes of social media with the aim to increase security and enhance margins for industries where people meet face-to-face. Fraker also began his trek to the top at a young age.
"He actually said, 'I'm willing to help you with this app, to help you develop it,'" Alex said.
"He's able to say, 'Hey, I'm a very smart guy that knows and I'm telling all of you other very smart people that know, this is not only for real, the real deal, but this is a very special idea,' and to Alex's credit, he said, 'Hey guys, this is an idea that's been scrutinized and vetted thoroughly by a lot of smart people,'" said Alex's dad, Brian Knoll. "He tried with his team to punch holes in the idea, 'How can this fail, how can this not work, why shouldn't I try to get involved to help this kid get this done,' and he couldn't come up with any negative. It's really, again, one of those mind-blowing things that Alex has stumbled upon an idea, created an idea in his brilliant young mind that affects so many people."
Alex was invited to partner with Senndex to develop the app and they announced the partnership at the Think Big Fest. Alex met with industry professionals to configure costs of getting it going, which would be about $25,000, and his parents are in the process of creating the Ability App nonprofit organization, of which Alex will be the CEO.
"The most amazing thing as parents is to watch; not only to have this opportunity thanks to Beth (Brubaker) and Invent Idaho and everything else there, but to now see him in a position to where he has the ability to learn and grow in ways that very few children would ever have the chance to do at this age," Brian said. "He's incredibly blessed to have this opportunity."
Alex said he is thankful to Brubaker, Invent Idaho founder and North Idaho STEM special projects teacher, for helping him get to where he is now and he is grateful to Think Big Fest organizer Nick Smoot for the opportunity to speak and present at the event and to Fraker for his encouragement and partnership.
"It is heart-warming to see our youth caring about other people and solving real-world problems, especially for those with special needs," Brubaker told The Press. "I Cubed stands for 'Inspire, Ignite, Invent'" and Alex is truly an amazing young man who exemplifies the spirit and mission of I Cubed Inventions."
Brian Knoll, and Alex's mom, Anne Knoll, are overwhelmingly proud of their son.
"He's always had a great empathy toward others," Brian said. "Obviously, the idea, as sweet and empathetic as it was in its infancy, has now blossomed into this unbelievable opportunity."
Among his scientific influences, Alex said he looks up to Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk.
"That's kind of who I want to be," he said with a giggle.
He said he also reveres Ellen DeGeneres for her positive attitude and the joy she finds in helping others.
"I love Ellen because she does help a lot of people," he said. "I love that about her. And she's so funny, I watch the show every day."
Alex sent a letter to DeGeneres because the young lady who won the I Cubed competition last year appeared as a guest on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon." He said he would be happy to appear on either to promote his invention and educate non-disabled people about the hardships disabled people face every day. He also wants to remind people that there are many inexpensive, little things that citizens and businesses can do to help make the world a better place for those living with disabilities.
"I've definitely learned a lot about the challenges of disabled people and their struggles," he said. "I just want to help as many people as I can."
For information, videos or to donate, visit www.abilityapp.org.