A Red Deer inventor who used to “annoy” his teachers with his divergent thinking has won a $1.3 million in grants to develop an app that will help hospitals get masks, protective equipment and other supplies.
And Cole Webber has just turned 22 years old.
The young man, who recently moved to Edmonton to join his research team, believes it’s important to streamline the materials-ordering process — considering that 57 million N95 masks that could have protected health care workers expired before the pandemic and had to be landfilled or otherwise destroyed.
Chances are these masks were sitting forgotten in a warehouse somewhere, where they degraded past the point of usefulness. (Webber said the masks cease to properly filter pathogens after a number of years.)
His aim is to cut out the need for warehouse storage with his new app-in-development, called Betterfit.
The computerized program — which will also be available on a website — will allow institutions, including health authorities, grocery chains and large construction companies, to keep bulk ordering all of the materials needed for their various locations to save money by leveraging their buying power.
But instead of having these shipped to a centralized warehouse for later distribution to regional and local sites, the supplies will be delivered directly to where they are most needed, on a priority basis.
Webber said it will save companies and health authorities time, millions of dollars in shipping costs, and reduce the chance of human errors causing the wrong items getting delivered to sites.
The Red Deerian’s inventiveness came to the attention of the National Research Council because of a 2018 patent Webber filed. It was for a computer system that could optimize scheduling tasks for organizations dealing with staffing requirements or bookings for conferences or operating theatres.
The Council encouraged Webber to apply for federal grants to expand his invention into what has become the new distribution app.
His company of eight employees has since been awarded $300,000 for the initial development phase and $1 million from Innovative Solutions Canada (in partnership with Public Service and Procurement Canada and the National Research Council) to get the app ready for use. Webber believes this process will take until the end of the year.
Webber said he always wanted to be an inventor as different ideas have occurred to him over the years — going back to when he was a 15-year-old at Eastview Middle School.
In 2013, Webber was part of a four-student Red Deer team that won top prize in an international challenge to design the school of the future. The event had involved 700 teams from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K .
After the win, Webber recalled being invited to speak at educational conferences in Spain, the Netherlands and other countries.
He observed during his travels that some conference rooms were overflowing with people while other larger halls were occupied by small groups that just happened to have booked the facilities first. He began thinking of ways of optimizing the booking process.
Although Webber is obviously very bright — he skipped some high school classes, designed his own computer as a teenager, complete with a voice assistant to play songs, and presented a TEDx talk — he describes himself as an average person who’s curious.
“I know I was always annoying my teachers, trying to turn things around on them,”questioning what was stated and putting forward new ideas, he recalled.
In Grade 4, Webber turned what was meant to be a 15-minute class presentation into a two-hour lecture examining all the different theories on former U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
His Grade-4 classmates were allowed to leave the room if they were disturbed by the visuals, Webber recalled.
He credits a “divergent thinking” program that was in place at Annie L. Gaetz Elementary School for helping spark this mental creativity.
After graduating from Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School, he took various humanities classes at Red Deer College and the University of Alberta — ranging from anthropology to political science. He said his goal wasn’t to get a degree, but to study different areas of interest.