“I want to fix the internet,” says innovator, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Nodle Garrett Kinsman

“I want to fix the internet,” says innovator, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Nodle Garrett Kinsman

This week, we spoke to Kinsman, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Nodle, to understand who he is as a person and how it is that he has already achieved so much in his life. Nodle uses crowdsourced connectivity to act as an access provider for the Internet of Things (IoT) using bluetooth.

An early connection

When Kinsman was in high school, he attended Google’s Project Ara conference. Project Ara was essentially a Google-headed modular phone concept where smartphones could become upgradable piece by piece. “There was a project to build a modular smartphone,” he said. “So, I convinced a potential customer to send me out to Google’s Project ARA conference and it was there I met a guy named Micha.”

Meeting Micha Benoliel, the founder of FireChat, was a springboard opportunity. “He actually offered me a job right on the spot,” Kinsman remembered. “I ended up joining an internship out in San Francisco for the FireChat app and basically joined right while that was blowing up.”

FireChat was a messaging app that used wireless mesh networking to enable off-the-grid communication without an internet connection. The app gained notable traction at festivals like Burning Man and during pro-democracy protests like Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella revolution in 2014.

At Google’s Project Ara conference, Kinsman secured an internship with Benoliel working on the FireChat app in San Francisco. Kinsman’s connection with Benoliel eventually led to other opportunities.

While working for FireChat, Kinsman became the lead designer. He also helped design GreenStone, which is a wearable device that allows people to build a wireless infrastructure.

Notably, Kinsman and Benoliel went on to create Nodle, which is a low power network for IoT connection via Bluetooth. Nodle is also the company behind the contact-tracing app Coalition and the nonprofit Coalition Network.

“Micha says ‘Hey, I’ve got this crazy idea for a company, let’s build it,’” Kinsman recalled. “And that’s how Nodle began. Now we’ve been at it for about three years, building all sorts of decentralized wireless networks, encryption schemas and now a contact tracing app for enterprise.”

The fight against COVID-19

Coalition is designed to help slow the spread of COVID-19 by notifying users if a person they have recently been in contact with has contracted COVID-19. This could be a vital and even lifesaving tool by helping alert users to their potential exposure and that they should isolate themselves and seek out testing. Kinsman agreed that timing was critical in launching Coalition.

“Yes, timing is everything,” he said. “The fact that we focused all of our efforts on this and pushed it is very crucial to us making it a success.”

“It’s not a complete success yet,” he conceded. “Once we have this [enterprise] deployed and we’ve sold millions of these, then I think it will be much more of a success. But, it’s already a great achievement to have open-sourced all this great code. And I think we’ve one-upped the giants, so that’s also exciting.”

Lessons learned

From Kinsman, we can learn to go where there is an opportunity, to not feel guilty about taking appropriate breaks and to be mindful of the space that we occupy.

When Kinsman was barely 20, he was living in San Francisco and struggling to find work. He made the leap to go live in India, where he found work in the innovation department of Ola Cabs, a ridesharing company. Here, he developed Ola-Play, which helped convert hundreds of thousands of cabs into connectivity hubs and Wi-Fi hotspots.

“We built a custom hardware device, basically a Connected Car interface,” he explained. “I’ve always been interested in connecting things.”

He told us that his motivation for going to India may have been partially due to his desire for a spiritual journey. He ended up working instead, but he learned some useful lessons about keeping a healthy work-life balance. One habit Kinsman recommends having is taking breaks when appropriate.

“Yes, you have to have a hard work ethic, but also taking breaks leads to much higher efficiency. I saw this in India when they would make people work on weekends,” Kinsman said.

Although he’s still quite young, we asked Kinsman what advice he might give himself when he was just starting out on this journey. He explained he would tell his younger self to always take stock of the room that you are in.

“I would definitely tell my younger self just to keep my mouth shut,” he explained.

“I had somebody tell me once ‘when you walk in a room, take the temperature of the room.’ I definitely did not do that, my youthful self, and that got me into a lot of trouble. Because, I would share my opinions and people don’t like when you share your opinions.”

He added, “Once you get older and start to learn the temperature of the room, you can share much more constructive advice and not get in as much trouble.”

We had more questions for this young innovator and entrepreneur to learn more about his journey so far and what the future may look like for the IoT.

You’re on a mission to change the way we use the internet. What made you so passionate about this and how did you first get into these types of projects?

So, it probably started really in high school. I said “I want to do two things. I want to fix the internet,” because my internet at home was very slow and it was very expensive. I learned that all the internet really is is just pulses of light and radio waves. There’s no reason you should really pay for that.

The second thing I wanted to do was build nuclear reactors. I haven’t got to do that yet, but right now I’m focused on building out the internet and making it much cheaper for things to connect to the internet.

I think I was passionate about it because almost everything I’ve learned just came from watching YouTube videos and reading Wikipedia and having people teach me things one-on-one. I didn’t really learn very well in school. So, if I can bring that type of connectivity to everyone, I think the world would be a much better place.

Now we’re focused on bringing this type of connectivity to all types of small IoT devices like our device here or sensors. If we can learn more about the world, I think it’s a very good thing.

What’s something going on personally or professionally that you’re currently working on achieving?

I think that would have to be the Nodle M1, which is our contact tracing device. So, it allows people to securely do contact tracing or interaction tracing without giving up your location or your personal privacy. This is helping big companies fight the COVID pandemic. That’s basically what I eat, breathe, live and sleep is to figure out how to make this work.

It’s kind of crazy, because most startups avoid hardware like a plague and to me, I really love it – hardware is really fun. We have been following this philosophy of software-defined hardware where you let the software define what the hardware looks like. Now you can run applications that you could never run on existing applications like a smartphone. So, for example, these applications don’t work very well on a smartphone because the operating system makers closed down certain applications. We built a much better way to do it.

You’ve helped launch projects like FireChat, Natana and GreenStone. Where do you see these kinds of tools taking us in the next several generations?

This is really interesting. Like I mentioned before, there’s really no reason you should pay for internet. It’s oscillations in the universe. When you connect to a cell tower and send a tweet, it’s just the number of vibrations in the universe. The idea that you pay for that is kind of absurd.

There’s a lot of people in the world that could benefit from it being much easier to access these types of things. Now, you have lots of infrastructure you have to deploy. The government actually takes pieces of this electromagnetic spectrum and they sell it, so they actually sell pieces of air. Which is also a little wild. We think it can just be a lot easier to do this.

So, with GreenStone, we decided to build a wireless infrastructure that anybody could deploy. A child could wear this around their neck and you could use it to send messages between each other. So, even if the internet went down, you’d still have a basic infrastructure because these would communicate between each other and you could send basic messages. Now, we just made messaging free. You don’t have to rely on cell towers or the internet.

We believe we can do these things with IoT communications, like we’re doing with Nodle. We believe the same can be done for things like 5G and maybe even satellite communications in the future, allowing anybody to deploy new types of infrastructure, access it and be rewarded for maintaining it. It may never be free, but I think we can make it almost free.

Can you tell us about Coalition? What prompted you to create the app?

Coalition began in January 2020. The economy was collapsing, the pandemic was starting to rage and we’re like “oh snap, what do we do as a very small startup with not a lot of resources?”

We realized that our whole wireless stacks, everything that we’ve built to connect and secure IoT devices, could be used to do contact-tracing. The idea of recording interactions between people to then see how a sickness spreads throughout a population. And, we could do it most importantly while protecting privacy.

We built a full stack, launched it, and then everyone started launching similar solutions. Now, the giants have launched solutions that are very similar to ours. We realized that the best way to do it is to actually deploy custom hardware because the areas where this is needed the most, whether it’s warehouses or factories or refugee camps, you can’t really have smartphones. Smartphones don’t work very well there. So, we focused on that and made it happen.

We pushed it very very quickly. The reason we were able to pivot so fast is, we just had a very small team. We’re less than ten people and it’s do, or die.

Can you talk about the key partnerships the Coalition app has? How were those partnerships developed?

We partnered very early on with the city of Berkeley. We’ve also been working with the government of France and the Senegalese government. So, these have been really made just through people that we know and it’s been very helpful in getting feedback on how to properly deploy such a solution.

What is one critical moment in your life that has shaped you and where you are today?

I think, for me, it’s definitely living in India. Nobody would give me a job in San Francisco when I was 19 or 20. I didn’t have a college degree and my friend was like “hey, just come over and live in India.” And I did, and then he became the COO of Ola Cabs and offered me a job.

So that whole experience of seeing a totally different place definitely shaped who I am. Me being a huge nerd, I got to see some pretty exciting wireless infrastructure get deployed and basically change the country. Read up on Reliance Jio – that was very exciting to see that launch.

Who is a business leader that inspires you?

Honestly, I am a huge fan of the classics – Jobs and Musk. I think part of me actually went to India because I wanted to be like Steve Jobs and go on a spiritual journey, but I ended up getting a job instead.

I’m going to be very stereotypical and say that Steve Jobs and Elon Musk definitely inspire me and make me want to work harder. I think also Bhavish Aggarwal of Ola Cabs also inspired me, he’s a pretty smart guy.

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

At first, I really wanted to be in advertising. Then, my sister and I went to Fifth Ave and realized that advertising is a total crap show. Then I wanted to be a graphic designer. I did that and got bored with it, and then took that into the third dimension – and that’s kind of where I am today with hardware. It’s just graphic design applied to the third dimension.

In high school I said “OK, I want to fix the internet and I want to build fusion reactors.” I’ve just been following that and trying to do those things.

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