Curtis Kennedy’s childhood dream was lacing up his skates for an NHL team. Instead at 14 he was diagnosed with Blastic Plasmacytoid Dendritic Cell Neoplasm (BPDCN), a rare form of leukemia that can affect multiple organs, including the lymph nodes and skin. Now Kennedy has a new vision and at 21 and is on the verge of debuting his creation the Vertiball, a ball-on-the-wall massager.
The fifth-year mechanical engineering student at the University of New Brunswick first conceived the product after spending hours with a lacrosse ball rolling around on the floor trying to apply pressure to muscles affected by his myofascial pain, chronic pain that forms knots of tense muscles along his back. Kennedy thought there had to be a better way of applying pressure to his back. After 210 iterations of the Vertiball and industrial suction cups he is preparing for a Kickstarter later this fall.
His eyes brighten, talking with his hands, explaining how he was changed by his bout with BPDCN, a type of cancer formerly known as natural killer (NK) cell leukemia/lymphoma. He sees each day as an opportunity to solving another problem. “With all this accessible technology if you want to figure out something you really can,” said Kennedy.
In his heart New Brunswick is home. After the plastic moulds of the Vertiball arrive from China, production of his massaging wall ball will start at Bouctouche Bay Industries in Saint Edouard de Kent, N.B. about 67 kilometers north of Moncton.
“I will do everything in my power to make it happen here, because I just believe in it,” said Kennedy.
That belief in doing business from his home base in New Brunswick was first fostered at The Summer Institute, a 12-week accelerator program operated by the University of New Brunswick’s Faculty of Engineering. “I grew 15 sizes as a person there,” he said.
The Summer Institute is an offshoot of the J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology Management and Entrepreneurship (TME), which teaches participants how to develop and manage technology-based projects. Institute program manager Melissa O’Rourke remembers Kennedy coming to the office on a cold February day saying he had a cool project, but no idea what to do with it. She recommended he apply to the Summer Institute’s 2017 program.
“Curtis is one of the most positive, inspiring folks that I have met. He always has a smile on his face and such an upbeat attitude,” said O’Rourke. “It’s an absolute pleasure to have him around.”
As part of the program, participants earn minimum wage and receive funds to develop a prototype. Kennedy received $2,000 – and mentorship, the true gem for him.
Kennedy was paired with interdisciplinary designer, Philip LeBlanc, who has been with the Institute since its beginnings in 2014. Originally from New Brunswick, LeBlanc now lives in Toronto but flies back each summer to help entrepreneurs such as Kennedy. They’ve worked together and have made 30 major changes to the Vertiball.
LeBlanc said part of Kennedys charm is he’s always working and tinkering to improve the product. They’ve made hundreds of small changes like thinning the suction cup by a fraction of a centimeter. They have 60 ideas they want to get to market. After Vertiball they’ll look for other solutions, all while LeBlanc continues his mentorship in the accelerator programs.
“People, engineers, designers, anyone whose creating an artifact that’s out in the world needs to have a lot more responsibility for the entire life cycle of the product,” said LeBlanc.
Kennedy said he always wanted to create a product that works with peoples lives, that’s accessible and produced locally. In a couple months, once he’s tackled Vertiball and back pain problems he hopes to turn his eyes to solving renewable energy issues.
“We live in a time where we can save ourselves.”
Clarification: The original version of this story stated the Kickstarter campaign would begin in July. It will begin in autumn 2018 and the change was made to this story on June 25.