“Submergence! ‘: Nova Scotia teenager designs safety response system for occupants of submerged vehicles



HALIFAX, N.S. – One thousand eight hundred and fifty inches – or 154 feet – above sea level – what goes through your mind? While crossing the MacKay Bridge in Halifax, the thoughts of then eleven-year-old Layla Owens had dire consequences.

She asked her mother how they would survive if they accidentally ended up in the water below. “We would need to open a door or a window to be able to get out before submerging,” explained her mother.

Passing over the expanse below, Owens didn’t find his mother’s response reassuring. His attention was captured by the dangers of pressurization and the potential inability of people to get out safely and get help. The next day, she began searching for a solution that she hoped could save lives.

Enter “Submergency!” , an automated voice-activated 911 emergency response and window opening system for submerged vehicles that takes into account the awareness of the occupants.

Although Owens’ initial concept for “Submergency!” took shape in 2017, his interest in science started 6 years before.

“I spent first through third grade in Los Angeles,” she said. “I guess it all started with my family joining the California Science Center…that’s really where my passion for science was born.”

Owens also has ties to Shelburne. His mother Tonya Firth is from Shelburne and many of their family members still live in the area.

“My grandfather (Layla’s great-grandfather) Roland DesChamp Sr. passed away in October,” she said. “After the funeral, family members pointed out that he and Layla started their journey as entrepreneurs at age 15 and they thought that fact could make for a great story.”

Teenager Layla Owens doesn’t just think about ideas, she works out how to implement and make them happen. ILGAR GRACIE PHOTO – Contributed

To start

Layla Owens said “Submergence!” is something anyone in any vehicle can benefit from.

“I may not be a driver myself, but you don’t need to control the car to think about what controls your safety.”

Its design process began in earnest with its first prototype which combined sensor technology with window retraction. She was inspired by her older brother, Mitchell, who was building prototypes and competing with his own innovation projects for local science fairs. René Bouillon, his junior high school science teacher at École secondaire du Sommet, provided him with the support, advice and materials he needed to continue his journey as an inventor.

His tenacity paid off. His initial prototype earned him the first NS Minister’s Award for Excellence in Entrepreneurship. for technology in 2018.

From there, her research and the design of her second prototype exposed her to the world of academics and technology accelerators.

Majid Nasirinejad, a computer scientist at Dalhousie University and founder of Deprolabs Technology (a tech startup that operates out of Volta Labs in Halifax), helped Owens find a hardware component for his innovative solution. This component, combined with other hardware and software technologies, allowed him to assemble the mechanism by which ‘Submergency!’ could respond to a submergence, provide an emergency exit from the vehicle, and autonomously contact 911 for assistance.

His feat did not go unnoticed.

At the Canada-Wide Science Fair in 2019, she received both the Junior Excellence Award and the Ted Rogers Innovation Award, the latter of which included a week-long STEM entrepreneurship boot camp at the ‘York University.

With growing external support and further improvement ideas for ‘Submergency!’ Continuing to percolate, the teenager sought advice from experts in the fields of automotive research and cold water submersion. This led her to Ross McKenzie, Managing Director of the Waterloo Center for Automotive Research at the University of Waterloo.

McKenzie began to mentor Owens, advising her on the application of “Submergency!” in new vehicles. He put her in touch with Volvo and the Canadian Auto Parts Manufacturers Association. McKenzie also introduced her to Professor Gordon “Popsicle” Giesbrecht of the University of Manitoba. Widely considered an expert in cold water submersion, Giesbrecht has spent years researching the optimal vehicle safety measures for occupants.

With input and clarification from two experts in their fields, Owens’ third prototype included all of the previous features with two enhancements and now addressed the possibility of an unconscious occupant. Additionally, this third design iteration implemented Professor SWOC’s protocol: seat belts off, windows open, exits, children first.

Awareness and Attention

The more collaborators Owens sought, the more “Submergency!” took shape.

In 2020, his work earned him the Youth Science Canada Online STEM Fair Outstanding Project Award and a nomination for the 2021 Weston Youth Innovation Award.

Although vehicle submergence is the cause of more than 300 deaths each year, judges at the 2021 Youth Science Canada Virtual Regional Science Fair said they were unaware of the prevalence of a problem until for Owens to bring this staggering statistic to their attention.

“I’m constantly surprised at how many people don’t realize this is something we could prevent,” she said.

Now 16, the teenager attends Charles P. Allen High School and has become the youngest member of Emera ideaHUB. This organization, led by Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Engineering, focuses on creating innovative products and developing cutting-edge solutions. Through her new team at Emera ideaHUB, she is working on developing a full-scale model of “Submergency!”

Ultimately, his end goal is to make “submergence” a mandatory safety feature present in all new vehicles, just like seat belts and airbags.

As for what’s next for her?

“The focus right now is definitely on the entrepreneurial side of things,” she said. “I know that I want to help people first and foremost, but the more I learn, the more I realize that I really have to think about the future if I want to continue on my journey.”

Owens credits CEED, the Center for Entrepreneurship Education and Development, with kickstarting his journey as an entrepreneur. CEED’s assistance helped guide her through the complex processes of customer discovery, market validation and the development of a working business model.

Mentorship from the organization’s Maria-Fernanda Navarro, a business consultant and graduate of Cornell University’s Entrepreneurship Program, helps educate Owens on intellectual patent protection and best practices when it comes to “submergence! ” to the insurance and automobile markets which have the power to implement it.

Teenager Layla Owens doesn't just think about ideas, she works out how to implement and make them happen.  ILGAR GRACIE PHOTO - Contributed
Teenager Layla Owens doesn’t just think about ideas, she works out how to implement and make them happen. ILGAR GRACIE PHOTO – Contributed


CEED CEO Craig MacMullin, who worked with Owens during her first few months at CEED, said she exhibited the entrepreneurial spirit and drive of a successful startup owner – the good environment was all she needed to start focusing her idea and exploring its potential commercialization.

“His drive and creativity got us thinking about how many other young tech entrepreneurs in Nova Scotia could benefit from more targeted programming. Helping entrepreneurs is what we do, so there was no doubt that we would take her on as a client,” MacMullin said, adding that it also gave them the chance to learn from her.

“We are using the lessons learned from this experience to help design a Young Innovators program that is specifically designed to bring technological innovations closer to young people in the market and, along the way, develop their entrepreneurial and technological aptitudes”, a- he declared. .

To Owens, it’s amazing that not every vehicle has a mechanism like the one she designed. If she succeeds, parents everywhere will have a new answer to the question like the one she asked her mother on that bridge four years ago.

Their response will be: ‘Submergence!’

Christopher Abbott, the author of this article, is the Entrepreneurship and Communications Coordinator at the Center for Entrepreneurship Education & Development (CEED). He provided this article to Saltwire Network for publication.


Comments are closed.