By Dan Champoux, Founder of GEKOT Inc, FIRST Robotics Coach, and MFF Member
Dan Champoux speaking during an August 2023 celebration at the U.S. Patent Office honoring the GEKOT FIRST LEGO League team for their new patent
I’ve been playing with robots for the last nine years and the experience has totally changed my life. My son got involved with the FIRST LEGO League as a fourth grader (he’s now 17!) and the best way to manage our family calendar was to control the schedule – if I was the coach of his extracurricular activities, I controlled the schedule. What started as a logistics-driven decision turned into a passion, and now, a career.
For those who aren’t familiar, FIRST is a program for K-12 students with two goals: 1) to encourage a STEM education, and 2) to develop problem-solving skills. The program treats STEM learning the same way the rest of our culture treats sports – FIRST is exciting and competitive so it’s something kids want to do instead of something they’re forced to do.
The FIRST LEGO League is designed for younger students and equips them with everything they need to build a robot: control systems, sensors, code, motors, and, of course, LEGOs. With more than 1,700 teams statewide, Michigan has the largest FIRST community in the country and is truly developing future tech talent in our state. A report can show you the numbers, but I can tell you the stories.
The GEKOT LEGO League Team hard at work to develop their new technology in early 2020.
Team GEKOT and the Tale of the U.S. Patent
Even though my son aged out of the FIRST LEGO program, I remained a coach for Bloomfield Hills elementary and middle school students. Three years ago, our team – the GEKOTs (Great Engineering Kids of Tomorrow) – started brainstorming solutions for a ‘city living’ problem, which was the program theme that year.
Fast forward to today and our FIRST team of 10 Bloomfield Hills students and I were honored at the United States Patent and Trademark Office for our recently issued patent, a collision avoidance system for electric scooters. This is the invention we developed for the FIRST Robotics and Invention Convention competitions in 2020.
A very long story short: Over many meetings, design thinking sessions, research, prototyping, testing, interviewing, coding, breaking things, rebuilding things, and more, the students and their project won first place at the FIRST Robotics state championship. The invention also got Razor’s attention, and inspired a patent application. Oh, and this experience was the basis for launching my company, GEKOT Robotics Inc.
Pretty darn cool.
Most of these young patent-holders are now entering high school next year. They have so much of life ahead of them and they’ve already done something that so few people will ever do in a lifetime. This experience has certainly made an impact on my life and I know it’s helped shape the lives of these young leaders.
The GEKOT LEGO League Team with their scooter prototypes in 2020
Sparking Innovation in Even More Young Talent
The point of all this, though, isn’t about the product or the company, it’s about what project-based STEM programs can do for students and for us as a whole here in Michigan.
During one of our ‘city living’ field trips, we met leaders at Micah 6 Community in Pontiac. Micah 6 is a community-based organization that is renovating the Webster Community Center, a former school building that has been vacant since 2007. In a few years, the formerly dilapidated building will be a vibrant, mixed-use community center that is home to nonprofits, small businesses, and (wait for it!) a maker space for local robotics teams!
Pontiac suffers from issues that so many cities struggle with and kids in the community don’t always have access to educational opportunities that spark critical thinking and problem solving. As a longtime neighbor to the community, I want to bring the same STEM learning experiences we have in Bloomfield Hills to students in Pontiac.
We’re working to secure a sponsorship from General Motors, who has agreed to start and sustain a maker space that is designed to foster creative thinking, problem-solving and collaboration in K-8th grade students. As word has gotten out, we’ve also received interest from other STEM education organizations who want to use the space, like the Oakland County Sheriff Office’s student drone program. I certainly welcome the collaboration and the additional offerings we can provide to this underserved community.
As a Michigan founder, I feel driven to help grow the next generation of innovators and I believe that a lot of the founders here at Michigan Founders Fund feel the same way. The world has a lot of problems and today’s kids have to be equipped to solve them when they grow up. To me, this work embodies our slogan, founders for founders & founders for community.
Future home of Webster Community Center and the STEM-focused maker space for kids in Pontiac
Make an Impact: Contribute to the Webster Community Center Project
I’m looking for your support in the development of the Webster Community Center maker space and our planned STEM programs. I’m hoping you’ll make a donation of any size to our new crowdfunding campaign – more information here. Money raised will be used to design, build out, and furnish the maker space in a way that sparks problem solving, teamwork, and innovation for kids in Pontiac.
As I think about my own legacy, yes, I hope GEKOT Robotics Inc. will continue to grow as a company and keep people safe with our technology. But, more importantly, I hope kids I work with feel like they’re part of something here in Michigan and decide to dream, create, and solve problems right here.