New Anti-theft device for laptops

Thursday, February 26th, 2004

Yvonne Zacharias

SFU engineering science students Matt Brown (left), Hani Mehrpouyan and Chris Mitchell, invented a device to discourage laptop theft. CREDIT: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun

Step away from your laptop and the palm-held end of the theft-prevention device lets you know if it has been moved. CREDIT: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun

They were just three young guys enrolled in a course called Engineering Science 340 at Simon Fraser University.

Students need to come up with an entrepreneurial idea, propose it as though they were dealing with management of a big company, make the product and do a wrap-up report and presentation on it.

Chris Mitchell, Matt Brown and Hani Mehrpouyan had an idea.

The germ of it came from friends who had tales of woe of having their laptops stolen. Bells went off in the minds of these three 20-something whiz kids.

The course was looming. “We bounced ideas off each other all summer before the course started and we kind of impressed the rest of the class by being prepared for it,” said Mitchell.

After much brainstorming, mind bending and pencil sharpening, the trio came up with a device that they hope will foil laptop thieves.

Their invention comes in two parts — one that is attached to your laptop and the other that you hold in your hand.

Step away from your laptop and the palm-held end of the device notifies you if your laptop is being moved. You then have five seconds to either disarm a siren on the other end of the device before it goes off, or let it blare out the news to the whole world that something is wrong.

The beauty of the electronic beast, according to Mitchell, is it allows the laptop owner to be mobile, which is, after all, the whole idea of laptops. There are few false alarms because of the deactivating device and the distance required between the laptop and its owner (about 15 feet) before the gizmo works.

“There are lots of systems out there that have just a thing that detects motion, so it blasts a siren just like the car alarms that no one listens to these days,” said Mitchell.

Then there are the cable locks you can use to lock up laptops, but these, too, have their drawbacks. “It really stops a person with a laptop, whose purpose is being mobile, from being mobile.”

Sixty-nine per cent of laptop thefts occur when the owners are on the road or in the airport, yet current devices don’t seem to address these circumstances.

“All these devices require you to remember to do something when you leave your laptop behind and really there is nothing that protects you when you are walking with your laptop,” said Mitchell.

“They are all primarily for when you are stationary at your desk.”

Their gadget caught the eye of judges last fall at the mammoth Telus New Ventures B.C. Competition for early-stage companies. Out of 130 entries, the trio came third, winning $20,000.

“We definitely had a good feeling,” said Mitchell. “That really gave us some recognition among local people. We really got excited and thought we could make this happen.”

Friends happily tested it. So did local companies and institutions like Simon Fraser University, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the law firm of Fasken Martineau, the Growth Works venture capital firm and the federal government’s Western Economic Diversification office.

The prevalence of laptop theft is difficult to determine. No figures are available for Canada. South of the border, companies reported average losses of $47,107 due to laptop thefts in 2002, according to a survey by the U.S. Computer Security Institute. About 63 per cent of respondents to the survey said they were victimized by laptop thefts in 2002, up from 55 per cent in 2001.

The young entrepreneurs figure their device will sell for about $95 when it becomes available for purchase about two months from now. They are currently applying for patents in Canada and the U.S. and hope to use contacts made through co-op work in companies, as part of their engineering studies, to manufacture and distribute it.

The three hope to sell a few hundred gadgets to local people and get the interest of early-stage financiers. Then they hope to go to the next level, which is to develop a chip that can be incorporated right into laptops.

So do the three have hopes of getting rich? “Hopefully, it will help people and prevent laptop thefts,” Mitchell replied diplomatically. But he has to admit that getting rich would also be nice.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004


Comments are closed.