In a remote community in Northern Canada, beside the Arctic Ocean, is a beach encrusted with burnt trash – plastic, glass, batteries, compost and all kinds of detritus.
When a young inventor stumbled upon the desecrated coastline during a 2017 expedition to the region, she cried at the sight.
“That was really moving for me,” says Ann Makosinski, 22. “There’s obviously much worse pollution around the world, but seeing it right in front of you and in your own country was really terrifying.”
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It left her wanting to play a part in protecting the environment. The following year, back at her workspace in Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, she hit upon an idea.
She started work on a range of toys to teach kids about renewable energy. The cute, brightly colored characters make sounds, spin or light up when they are run underwater, placed in the sun or wound up, to demonstrate different ways of generating power.
“I just want, especially young kids, to feel like they can invent their own solutions and they don’t have to wait for other people to make them,” she says. “I want to inspire people to be more creative with the resources they have around them.”
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Life as a child prodigy
Makosinski was an unusual child. She didn’t watch television, play video games or have a cellphone. Instead, she spent her time listening to opera, watching silent movies and learning to play the piano and violin. Her first toy was a box of transistors.
“I wasn’t given many toys, so I had to make my own,” she says. “I would take garbage and my hot glue gun from around the house and piece together these so-called inventions, and obviously they never worked, but the idea of taking things from around me and piecing them together to make something better just kind of came really naturally.”
Aged 16, she won the 2013 Google Science Fair with a flashlight that runs on heat from a human hand – inspired by a friend in the Philippines who was failing school because her family couldn’t afford electricity to light a room for her to study in.
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The Canadian teenager became a media sensation, dubbed a child prodigy and the next Elon Musk, appearing on the Forbes 30 Under 30 energy list.
Her next invention – a mug that can charge a phone using energy from a hot drink – led to an appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. Her TEDxTeen Talk, “Why I don’t use a smart phone”, has now been watched more than two million times.
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Makosinski only bought her first phone, an old-fashioned flip model, at the age of 18. She believes that not having the distraction of technology in her pocket gave her the space and time to be creative, and connect better – she calls her friends, from a landline.
But as she entered adulthood, Makosinski began to feel burnt out. She struggled to obtain patents for her inventions, and although she had approaches from manufacturers, creating enough energy from body heat to compete with batteries was a huge challenge.
“I just wasn’t sure anymore of what I wanted to do or who I was,” she says. “My main passion was for just tinkering, it wasn’t necessarily inventions and getting money, it was tinkering, making things.”
A different direction
To her parents’ dismay, Makosinksi turned down an engineering scholarship and began an English Literature degree. But her interest in the arts led her to a more imaginative way of using her thermoelectric technology.
After finally gaining two patents for her technology early this year, she has employed it in her unique range of toys designed to educate children about the environment. “It’s just putting it in a different packaging, it’s just taking a different form,” she explains. “I really believe that the toy line is a better idea at the current moment with the technology.”
She hopes the toys will go on the market next year and plans to eventually hire a team of metallurgists and engineers to work on scaling the technology to deliver the flashlight to people who need it at an affordable price. “That was always my goal, to be able to distribute it or partner with an NGO so anyone who bought a flashlight here in America could be giving one to someone who needed electricity.”
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In the meantime, she wants children to understand that she is just “a normal girl who just used her time differently after school” – and that they could do the same.
Makosinski traces her recent recalibration to jumping into the freezing water during that emotional Arctic expedition. “Your mind just goes blank and then you start getting all these pins and needles like the water scratching you because it’s so cold, and your blood is rushing,” she says.
“The things that scare me the most and intimidate me … I don’t even know what I might be missing out on until I do them.”
In that ice-cold sea, her uncertainties melted away. She was ready to show the next generation the path she had discovered.