Acclaimed UBC student inventor goes for quiet Christmas in Victoria

Ann Makosinski is probably the only student in her University of B.C. residence with a soldering iron in her dorm room — and most certainly the only one on a first-name basis with talk-show host Jimmy Fallon.

The 18-year-old self-described “tinkerer” drew international acclaim — and a US$25,000 scholarship from tech giant Google — two and a half years ago for inventing a flashlight powered by the warmth of a human hand. She hasn’t rested since, inventing a coffee cup that can charge your smartphone, touring the globe as a sought-after speaker, and continuing to work behind the scenes to put her inventions into production.

Along the way, Fallon invited her to demonstrate the “Hollow Flashlight” last year on the Tonight Show, and she came back for a second appearance this past October.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Makosinski, who returned to the show’s New York studios to tout her coffee-cup invention, the eDrink. Makosinski was relaxed on camera, easily trading quips with Fallon as she demonstrated her latest invention.

It went more smoothly than her appearance a year earlier. That time, she wasn’t wearing her glasses, and could hardly see; this time she had contacts.

“Last time it was a blur, this time it was all HD — the crew and Jimmy all remembered me from last time,” she said. “I just felt more comfortable on the show.”

Makosinski moved from her Victoria home to UBC this fall for first-year studies — the Arts One survey course covering history, literature and philosophy, and a first-year chemistry course. And for someone so goal-driven — she invented the flashlight to help a friend in the Philippines whose homework studies were hampered by frequent power outages — Makosinski said she doesn’t yet know what her life’s work will be.

“I think I will explore a bunch of things as I get older — it’s too early to decide,” she said. “I feel that my life will be unpredictable in some aspect.”

Her university reading covers the centuries from Homer to Freud, with some of that reading happening on flights through the school year to New York, California and Vienna.

An only child who attended Victoria’s St. Michaels University School, Makosinski developed a knack for invention through her childhood interest in Peltier tiles, made with two different metals that generate a small amount of energy when one side is heated and the other is cooled. The effect has been known since the 1800s, and her flashlight uses the hand’s heat and the cool air inside a hollow tube of the tiles to power the flashlight LEDs.

She still tinkers with the flashlight, trying to figure out how to get it to produce more light. She is applying this month for a patent on an updated version.

“We’re talking with different manufacturers and investors who are interested in both the flashlight and the eDrink thing,” she said. “We’re also looking at people who have experience in R and D, metallurgists, things like that, who can help us with the design.”

Christmas will be a quiet one back in Victoria with her parents, a break from travel.

In addition to her Tonight Show appearance, she took time off from university this November for a whirlwind schedule.

She spoke at an event in Los Angeles organized by energy-drink maker Red Bull, then to Vienna for a two-night stay to receive an award from a European sustainable entrepreneurs group, then she headed to San Francisco to speak at a summit of young entrepreneurs organized by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

“I’ve flown on enough flights,” she said. “It got a little nuts.”

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Here is a video of Ann Makosinski with Jimmy Fallon.

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