STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Mancos’ 17-year-old Easton LaChappelle is famous.
Just ask the Internet. He’s one of the nine teenagers saving the world (and the only American).
He was featured on Nickelodeon.
When he was just 14 years old, the magazine Popular Mechanics called him a genius because of the series of robot hands he has developed, which now seem poised to revolutionize prosthetics.
PBS wants to do a documentary about him and the “future of the American economy,” said Easton, admitting he didn’t really know what that meant.
And he may become rich. Recently, Easton’s robotics company launched with Kickstarter – a website that crowd sources funding to entrepreneurs – and raised almost $9,000. In the short term, Easton’s company would supply robot kits to people who have an interest in using the technologies Easton has pioneered. In the long term, the Kickstarter money would go toward the development of a brain- and muscle-controlled prosthetic, robot arm that could be mass-produced for less than $1,000 each.
As Easton was excitedly talking about the millionaire Brooke Drumm, who’s already given him a 3-D printer – which is integral to the new light-weight, affordable arm, his mother – Julia Whelihan, interrupted.
“Easton, you left your dirty socks around again,” she said, shaking her head.
Easton sighed and quickly apologized.
It’s a tragedy many before him have known: No one is a genius to their own mother.
Much lies ahead
Easton is destined for great things. He’s about to go to Denver to deliver a TEDx talk about the bionic arm he built.
Universities in India keep asking him to take all-expenses-paid trips to their campuses to deliver lectures about robotics.
He’s interning at NASA this summer.
Some of the biggest names in science have invited him to lunch, offered him internships and tried to woo him to their alma maters.
In May, he’ll go to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where last year he finished second in engineering. This year, he wants first place.
On entering Easton’s Mancos laboratory, one does not feel so much to be in the presence of greatness, but in a teenager’s bedroom.
Tools of every sort – pliers, knives, screws, hammers, welding gear and two 3-D printers – cover every visible surface, from the desk to the jeweler’s table his mother loaned him to the dresser tops. Outlets sprout out of the walls like weed tufts. Much of the floor is taken over by riddled wires.
The faces of Krusty the Clown, Bart Simpson and Homer Simpson are emblazoned on the top pane of the room’s only window.
Easton’s twin bed, swathed in a plaid comforter, sits in the corner, almost an afterthought.
One senses that though Easton has spent most of his life in this bedroom (for many years he shared it with his older brother, Cameron), it really belongs to the robots he’s become famous for building in it.
Indeed, the robotic arm he built and took to last year’s international science fair (the one that made him famous, not the new one in development, which is to be controlled wirelessly by brainwaves) sometimes seems to stand elegant and unapologetic, like a silent superstar, where Easton is the nervous interpreter.
But when explaining his robot at the science fair or on Nickelodeon, showmanship comes easily to Easton. He beams and gestures fluidly, seamlessly adjusting his descriptions of the science behind his robot to match listeners’ comprehension.
Coming of age on stage
No such precocity blights his talk of other matters. He loves action films and, though suspiciously versant in romantic comedies, says he dislikes them. When he speaks of Mancos High School, where’s he a junior, his voice grows resigned, like a convict resigned to his prison sentence.
In some ways, Easton knows that life won’t sustain his dueling lives – renowned scientist on the cusp of making a bundle in the adult world and downtrodden child prisoner of public education – much longer.
He says he’s prepared to delay college to ensure the health of his business. Concerns such as lawyers, patents and investors are just around the corner.
Media attention and celebrity are likely not much farther off.
But for now, Easton is 17.
He said his ideal interview wouldn’t be with Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer, but “Morgan Freeman, with him reading me a book or something. And then we’d probably go into the interview, but hopefully we’d talk more about him than about me. And then, at the end, maybe we’d have a glass of wine together.”
His mother smiled.
There’s still time before the inventor is off the assembly line.