Invention

Following up with John La Grou in Palm Springs

The TED Blog caught up with John La Grou shortly after his three-minute talk from TED@PalmSprings to ask him about the history — and the future — of his RFIDs-in-electrical-outlets project. La Grou wants all electrical outlets to be “smart” — so they can prevent fires, save lives and help conserve energy.

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John La Grou: I used my three minutes to talk about the significant life-saving and energy-saving potential of our invention. But statistics don’t convey the pain and personal loss suffered daily from severe electrical fires, shocks, and burns. Nor does an abstraction like “saving electricity” adequately express the profound improvement this brings to our planet and quality of life together.

Immediately after my talk, Majora Carter (who gave the very first TEDTalk I ever watched, and is still among my TED bio Top Five talks) came up to me and shared that her good friends had just two weeks ago lost their Bronx house to an electrical fire. Majora was deeply shaken by this loss, but greatly encouraged upon hearing of our technology. She asked me how she could help spread the word about this invention.

When we experience loss directly, the urgency of life-saving technology becomes crystal clear. I would hope that my “extra TED minute” would inspire everyone to help us spread the word. The technology is here, now, to prevent daily human tragedy, if we would simply choose to employ it in our homes and businesses.

One model for electrical safety technology is the GFCI, the ground fault interrupt, which is that outlet in your bathroom that has the two switches on it, the “test” and “reset” switch. The patent for that came out of U.C. Berkeley in the 1950s and was developed by the Rucker company in the ’60s. And finally the patents were sold to 3M. Now, GFCI is ubiquitous. You can’t find a building in the industrialized world without GFCIs in high-risk areas — bathrooms, garages, decks, where you’re going to get water. So, within 15 to 20 years the GFCI became ubiquitous. Same thing with the smoke alarm. It’s hard to find a house or business without them.

The original EFCI receptacle idea occurred 10 years ago. My neighbor Dick Simpson had the first idea for this product. Brilliant man. Retired at that time. He got me and Stephen Jarvis together and said, “What do you think about this idea, this sensing outlet?” So the three of us worked on the idea for three or four years. I designed and developed the prototypes and proved the concept. I came up with a number of other ideas for the product. We jointly patented it. But we realized we’d reached our limitation in where we could take the product. None of us were experts in today’s electrical industry.

So we hired very bright people from the electrical industry to take it further. For the last few years, that group has taken the technology to dramatic new levels of safety and energy savings. You’ve seen how many patent claims we have now. It’s tremendous. Ultimately we’d like to see the product mandated for schools, homes, and businesses. Like the smoke alarm and GFCI outlet, we think the world is overdue for this technology. When this invention scales, it becomes inexpensive – about the cost of a GFCI outlet. Any sort of licensing arrangements would be minuscule and would not hold back the proliferation of these ideas into world markets. (Visit Safeplug.com and 2d2c.com.)

Photo: TED / Michael Brands