For over 30 years, the Collegiate Inventors Competition® (CIC) has provided a unique opportunity for graduate and undergraduate student inventors. Each year, a new group of students compete as they work to advance their inventions through national exposure and expert mentorship from National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductees. In partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the National Inventors Hall of Fame invites all CIC Finalists to Washington, D.C., to present their work to a panel of Judges and compete for cash prizes and patent acceleration.
Recently, we had the privilege of sitting down with 2017 CIC Finalist Charu Thomas, now a patented inventor and entrepreneur, as well as founder and CEO of a company started from the very invention she presented at CIC. As her business continues to grow exponentially, Thomas works passionately to make strides in the world of automation, specifically centered around groundbreaking technology that puts humans first.
Igniting the Innovative Spirit
In 2017, Thomas was in her final year at Georgia Institute of Technology as an industrial engineering major when she first learned about CIC. Searching for a way to secure non-dilutive funding – that is, a type of financing that allows a startup to retain full ownership of their company – she discovered this opportunity online.
Long before Thomas learned about CIC, however, she’d begun developing her idea of a human-centered automation system, which would become the entire foundation of her company. Her initial invention was PickAR, a mixed-reality application that combines barcode scanning for immediate inventory control with human navigation to project the optimal path between items in a warehouse.
“My first job was in warehouse and at the time, I was tasked with deploying large-scale automation systems,” Thomas shared in an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “I realized that automation was pretty capital intensive. I wanted to think about lower infrastructure forms of automation. I was thinking along the lines of artificial intelligence, mixed reality, computer vision … those types of technologies, which at the time, I didn’t know too much about. I was just hoping to learn a lot.” Thomas set out to combine computerization and the work of individual people to increase warehouse fulfillment work multifold.
Once Thomas had her vision of manufacturing automation, she connected with Thad Starner, a professor at the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech and the inventor of Google Glass, wearable technology that superimposes information on the wearer’s field of view via a display housed in a headset. Through his guidance and mentorship, Thomas was provided the opportunity to lead research projects, specifically in order fulfillment. Her inspiration grew as she honed her knowledge of these emerging technologies and continued to advance ideas for wearable technology.
Growing Her Vision at CIC
While Thomas had impressive ideas for novel technologies before she entered CIC, she humbly attributes much of her success today to the competition that helped her get her start. “At the time, invention didn’t necessarily seem accessible to me because I was a college student,” she explained. “I didn’t really know much about the patenting process. But then being in the presence of greatness, these world-changing inventors … it was very profound. While [my team] didn’t win at CIC, I consider myself so grateful for the opportunity.”
Not only did Thomas meet exceptional inventors at the competition, but she also continues to find inspiration from their guidance. National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees Steve Sasson and Radia Perlman have been particular sources of support and encouragement for her. “During the competition, there were some questions from the Judges like, ‘Is this even patentable?’, and I didn’t really know what that meant at the time. Steve stood up for us, vouching for our invention, and encouraging that our idea could be viable under a utility patent. And he was right. Those comments really did change my life, especially coming from people of his caliber.”
As for Perlman, Thomas said her constructive feedback challenged her invention as well as her way of thinking, helping propel her toward her goals. “Radia gave me some critical feedback early on, which helped me to clarify the vision for human-centered automation, to change the economic equation. We wouldn’t have gotten there without valuable feedback like hers, motivating me to revisit why I was making the choices I was and who I was helping in the process.” Thomas went on to discuss their relationship today, which includes sharing recipes and refining a draft of Perlman’s latest textbook. “She is amazing to me and has been so inspiring ever since those moments early on.”
Thomas believes the CIC experience is one of the most valuable parts of her innovation journey so far. “Bottom line, it’s one of the most impactful opportunities I’ve had throughout my career,” she said. “Being at the Collegiate Inventors Competition exposed me to some of the most brilliant people you could ever imagine, people whose technologies have impacted our day-to-day lives.”
Sharing a Space With Greatness
Since competing in CIC, Thomas has founded a company in northwest Arkansas, Ox, where she serves as the CEO. It is founded in human-centered automation. The wearable technology it produces directs frontline operators through artificial intelligence, powering $500 million in revenue for Fortune 500 enterprises. In the past two years, the company has grown its team from just four full-time employees to more than 40.
When talking about her company and the people who are a driving force behind it, Thomas beams with pride. “We’re really grateful to be surrounded by such incredible people. We have an absolutely world-class team, incredible investors, and an amazing vision and mission.”
As she strives to make the narrative about automation and humans a positive one, Thomas has never lost her passion for putting people first. “That’s the reason we all come to work every day. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Recently featured on Forbes 30 Under 30 List, Thomas remains humble, curious and incredibly grateful for her CIC experience.
Advance Your Invention at CIC
Do you or a college student you know have a unique invention and an innovative spirit? Learn more about CIC today!