UB inventor pairs ideas with drive
Updated 3:54 pm, Tuesday, October 17, 2017
BRIDGEPORT — Reem AlAttas’ parents bought their only child a bicycle and encouraged exploring new places.
“I felt free and powerful when the wind hit my face,” AlAttas recalls. “It felt like swimming against the current ... strong and different.”
That she lived in Saudi Arabia, where girls weren’t supposed to ride bikes, may have contributed to that sensation.
Flash forward to present day, where AlAttas, now 36, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bridgeport. Her focus is on computer science and engineering but she took a class called New Products Commercialization, for which an assignment was to take a product from concept to market.
That is how Rumble was developed. It’s the name AlAttas gave the bicycle helmet she invented. It is loaded with GPS tracking that can be activated by hand signals and includes an alert system to warn cyclists when traffic gets too close.
The invention won top prize at a Shark Tank-like entrepreneur competition last month in Hamden. Rumble has been patented, and a prototype is being developed in China. If all goes well, it could be on store shelves next year.
AlAttas has her fingers crossed. She is counting on any money made off Rumble to finance the robot she is building.
That is where her real passion lies.
“I am making a robot that will maybe go to the moon,” AlAttas said from the UB library.
Growing up, AlAttas wanted to be an astronaut.
When she wasn’t out bike riding on her family’s vacation compound in the mountains of Ta ’if, she watched cartoons. She loved “Transformers” and also a cartoon that had a female astronaut who experimented with computers.
She hoped to sign up for astronomy after high school. But in Saudi Arabia there was no division in astronomy for women, so AlAttas switched to computer science, she related in a “no big deal” sort of way.
“I never felt oppressed,” AlAttas said.
She was also comfortable being the first. She became the first female technical account manager at Microsoft in Saudia Arabia. It was a job that had her assigned to banks, some of which were uneasy with the idea of a woman in that role.
“What if we call you at 2 a.m.?” she said they said, challenging her. “No problem,” she told them.
In three months, she said, they realized she could do the job.
In 2011, it was time to do something different. AlAttas got a scholarship from her government and came to the United States, taking classes at Simmons College in Boston, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology before landing at UB.
“There is a huge gap between computer science and computer engineering,” AlAttas said. “The program here at UB bridges that gap. It was really cool and includes classes from the business school.”
Drive over ideas
It is one thing to have good ideas and a good education. What Mike Roer, an entrepreneur in residence at UB, looks for in launching new products are the soft skills — stick-to-itivenesses, the ability to overcome obstacles, and do multiple things at once.
AlAttas is working on her dissertation on robots that can assemble themselves, even as she works to launch Rumble to the market. She is due to complete her Ph.D. in May.
Roer said, people in his field no longer bet on the idea, but rather on the person behind it.
“She’s got that moxie,” he said.
Roer has worked with AlAttas for more than a year in UB’s Student Entrepreneur Center, and plans to stick with her until the “smart” bike helmet is launched.
Tarek Sobh, dean of UB’s School of Engineering, calls AlAttas tenacious.
“Reem is ... an out-of-the-box thinker,” Sobh said.
And she has an aptitude for ideas that fill market needs, he said.
About that bike riding
AlAttas grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital city, but her family had a vacation compound in the mountains of Ta ’if.
“I was a kid so nobody cared,” she said of her riding. “I looked like a boy.”
Once she started wearing a hajab, it became harder. The lower part of the fabric would get caught in the spokes.
“My mom was upset most of the time,” she said.
She took to walking instead. In a car, she had a chauffeur. Saudi Arabia is just now easing restriction on female drivers.
“It’s about time,” AlAttas said.
The idea for “smart” bike helmet, she admits, came not from childhood, but the year spent in Boston before she came to UB.
“I started riding a bike, but I was afraid of the street and the cars, especially when they start honking at you and you don’t know where to go,” AlAttas said.
She had a friend get hit by a car while riding a bike in Cambridge, fracturing a leg.
“She still rides bike,” AlAttas said. “She also wants a share of the profits (from Rumble).”