Imagine you’re in a kinesiology class, given a piece a paper with every muscle movement on it, and expected to understand anatomy. This is the situation that University of Maine student, Justin Hafner, found himself in and the catalyst for him founding KinoTek. KinoTek, a recently established startup, is creating a virtual reality technology that allows users to see what muscle group(s) are generating what specific movements in the human body. Now, Justin is on the fast track; he’s set to graduate but also hopes to reach a certain "technology readiness,” find a new headquarters, and decide if he will accept the University’s offer to study for his phD, all by the end of the semester, of course!
How did KinoTek get started?
KinoTek was started in September of 2018. I started the company with a friend who is a computer engineer. I came up with this idea when I was sitting in my kinesiology class and thinking about how hard it is to learn biomechanics and anatomy skills. It’s hard because you have to visualize what you’re learning. When we would study muscles movement in class, I wished there was a way to visualize it. The very next day I thought of the idea to use virtual reality to solve the problem. I went to Walter, the computer engineer we're working with, and he told me everything I was describing was possible from a technology standpoint. I also grabbed one of my professors, the one who I learned most of the kinesiology information from. He has a lot of knowledge in this field too, so the three of us began working back and forth. I then met another entrepreneur who was working on a similar company about a month into it. We came together, and all five of us linked up very well. We pull from each other's skills, and we’ve accomplished a lot in the last two months. Any gap in the company that needs to be filled can be filled from one of us, and we push each other to hone in on what we’re good at.
What resources have been useful in helping you so far?
The Vemi Lab is a virtual reality lab on the University of Maine campus. This was where I met Walter, the developer behind all this. I work with some of the best people on campus; they’re all geniuses, and I’ve never felt more welcome anywhere in my life. In college I struggled with having to make sure I always submitted what the professor wanted, to ensure I wouldn’t fail. When I’m at this lab, we want to fail. You learn way more that way, and I failed a ton. Before I got there, I didn’t know how to run a study or write programs. I began to learn these things, and it turned into a really collaborative effort. I started to retain everything, and it began to click. I would go home and do research, which isn’t typical for me. The Foster Center for Student Innovation has also been great. We were pumped up about our idea and came in to talk to Veena and Matt, two of the business incubation staff. We talked in a conference room for about two hours as they gave us guidance and an introduction into Innovation Engineering. From that point, the Innovation Center exposed me to business conference opportunities and the opportunity to meet other entrepreneurs. Whenever I need to figure someone out, I have someone to go to, and I can't thank the University enough for providing these resources.
What are the next steps for KinoTek?
Looking forward, I think the Top Gun program will be a good business mentoring program for us. I also have the opportunity to pitch on the Greenlight Maine College series. We're writing a grant for the Air Force and MTI right now, as well. We want to scale up. The grants we are pursuing are due in a couple of days, not a few months, so we’re moving quickly. I also graduate this semester, so we're looking into finding a new headquarters for the company, hopefully in the Bangor area. If not, the Libra Future Fund provides entrepreneurs with free office space for a whole year. If funding doesn’t come as quickly, I have been asked to pursue my phD with my department. Depending on the way everything works out, I may opt for that option, but for right now, its all KinoTek.
What future obstacles do you foresee?
Well, we are applying for grants that are some of the most competitive in the country. The acceptance rate is about 10-20% for thousands of people who apply. We have confidence in ourselves now, but there is always that fear that we’re getting too far ahead of ourselves and need to take a step back. Sometimes I worry about some larger company hearing this idea and sweeping it right out from under us. We’re still a very small company, so it's possible.
KinoTek is hoping to reach a certain technology readiness level by the end off the current semester and then begin validating and testing the technology. Hafner stressed the importance of being sure the tech does what it is intended to do, serve as an effective tool for learning and training. KinoTek aims to validate their tech through publications and use those published pieces to attract investors. Everyone on the KinoTek team is looking forward to being able to bring a new technology to the market that will help educate and train people in proper anatomy. Hafner, originally from New York, plans to stay in Maine long term, and he says "Oh, yeah. I am staying right here! I've got everything I need."