Change Agent

How Smart Skin CEO Kumaran Thillaindarajah unlocked a new market

The founder of Smart Skin Technologies thought his business was prosthetic limbs; it turned out to be beer bottling

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Smart Skin Technologies founder Kumaran Thillaindarajah

Smart Skin Technologies founder Kumaran Thillaindarajah. (Portrait by Mike Capson)

Kumaran Thillainadarajah founded Smart Skin Technology in 2009. The Fredericton-based company was named to the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 2015 Companies to Watch list, and its pressure-monitoring Quantifeel System is used in 20 of the largest beer-bottling plants in North America.

“As a student at the University of New Brunswick, I had a summer research job with the chair for nanotechnology. By the end of the summer, we had this material that could behave as a sensor, but it was very raw. I went back to university and took some business-plan writing courses. I thought we could design a skin that could give amputees back a sense of touch—that’s why the company’s called Smart Skin.

“We entered several business plan and engineering competitions and did very well. The judges really liked the technology, but thought prosthetics wasn’t the right market to commercialize it. So we started building around gaming and mobile phones. We were meeting with companies like Samsung, Palm, Microsoft, Nokia. But they weren’t really customers, they were just keeping up to date with developments in technology. When we wanted to get paid for the work that were doing, no one was interested.

“We were approached about using the technology in golf, because there was no one measuring grip pressure. But I wasn’t into golf, and no one at the company was a golfer. Through our mentor network we were able to get in front of one of the top golf schools in Florida. A few months into the golf experiment, I met an entrepreneur from the packaging industry. He said, ‘Right now the market is using impact sensors, but what the market really needs is a pressure sensor. If you can develop a sensor that could wrap around containers and measure pressure, that would be a game-changer.’ With him we entered the packaging market. We built prototypes, tested them, sold them. And we realized that the market was huge—much larger than we had expected and much, much larger than golf. So we diverted all of our attention to packaging.

“As a startup, your job is to always be nimble and be ready to pivot—you can’t be fixated on an idea. Even though we’re 100% engrossed in packaging, if somebody wants to talk to me about another potential application for technology, I’ll always take that meeting.”