$50K awarded to innovators with ideas about how to stop catalytic converter thefts
An Edmonton woman and her daughter whose catalytic converter was stolen in 2022 have won $25,000 for a product police believe will deter thieves from stealing the automotive part.
Mavis Shaw and Tamara Dolinsky say they are days away from receiving a "patent pending" status on their innovation called the Foilemfence.
Few details are being released about the product until the patent is successful, but the duo says its name reveals its key strategy.
"It's a fence that prevents people from getting under the vehicle, but also it's very visible," Dolinsky said at a joint news conference with the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) and Edmonton Police Foundation (EPF) on Friday. "Hopefully, the thieves will just see it and keep driving."
Dolinsky and her mother were announced that morning as the first-place winners of the EPF's Catalytic Converter Challenge – an open call for solutions to a multi-million-dollar problem in Alberta's capital city.
Between 2018 and 2021, catalytic converter thefts in Edmonton rose by nearly 220 per cent, likely because the precious metals inside increased in value, the automotive part is relatively easy to steal, and thieves face minor criminal charges, police say. Between 2021 and 2022, catalytic converter thefts rose by another 25 per cent.
Replacing a stolen converter can cost vehicle owners up to $3,000. EPS estimates catalytic converter thefts cost Edmontonians between $13 million and $17 million in 2022.
So Edmonton's police service took the problem to the public in the summer of 2022, promising a $50,000 reward to the entrepreneur or entrepreneurs who could make catalytic converters "almost impossible to steal."
After evaluating 210 proposals from all over the world – with a focus on feasibility, affordability and scalability – EPF and EPS split the cash award between three winners.
Another Edmonton team won second place and $15,000 for a product called "The King Strap," described as a harness for catalytic converters.
A team from Florida won third place and $10,000 for their "Catalytic Converter DNA" plan to etch vehicle identification numbers (VINs) into the vehicle part.
Next, the police foundation will help the teams prepare implementing their idea, including obtaining a patent in the case of the Foilemfence.
Additionally, EPF is working with a fourth contender from the challenge, a team from Winnipeg which designed a heat and scratch-resistant spray paint to label VINs on converters.
Noting proposals came in from all over the globe – from Turkey to Israel to China – EPF chair Ashif Mawji commented, "This challenge beat every other challenge that they have ever launched on [HeroX], some with prizes of $10 million to $20 million, just because of the impact."
That is why neither he nor Edmonton police chief Dale McFee were surprised by the amount of interest in the challenge.
"Just take Edmonton alone: $20 million of impact on people's lives. Not to mention the convenience, the lost time of your vehicle and everything that goes on from there," McFee told reporters on Friday.
"Our social media exploded with comments. People sent emails and stopped us on the streets."
In the first two weeks of 2023, the number of catalytic converter thefts – 130 – is almost double the three-year average of 74 in the same time frame, the chief added.
Days earlier, EPS announced 700 catalytic converters had been found in an Edmonton scrap yard, as well as more than $450,000 in fentanyl and cocaine.
"I think everybody needs to realize just what the impact of this and the connections to organized groups that this particular kind of theft has," McFee said on Friday.
"Any 10, 20 per cent, 30 per cent, that we can drop this."
Shaw said she and her daughter hadn't considered their chance of winning the challenge "at all."
"We were just thinking of something that would protect Tamara's car so the catalytic converter was not stolen again, as the insurance agent had suggested strongly it would happen again."
Edmontonian Tamara Dolinsky, left, and her mother Mavis Shaw speak to media on Jan. 27, 2023, after it is announced they won the Edmonton Police Foundation's "Catalytic Converter Challenge" through the Community Solutions Accelerator program.
"We had four goals," Dolinsky said, crediting her mom with the original idea. "The first one was something that was visible and would deter somebody from even wanting to stop or get out of the car to try to steal it. The second thing was something that would physically prevent them from getting under the car to get to the catalytic converter. So those two would take away the crime of opportunity. The two other goals that we had were something that we could use easily and also that was affordable."
Doinsky says her car hasn't been targeted since they put a prototype on it in June, before the challenge was even announced.
NEED TIGHTER LAWS: MCFEE
While the police officials on Friday celebrated the ideas that came through the challenge, they also reiterated the need for better legislation.
"The reality is if it's just possession of stolen property, the justice system alone, even if you catch them, isn't going to solve that," McFee said of the minor charges thieves typically face.
"We are asking various levels of government to further tighten the laws and legislation and bylaws regarding scrap metal recycling and increase the penalties associated with illegal activities."
Calgary city council is considering increasing penalties for catalytic converter thefts. The city's police force is also partnering with Kal Tire to offer $40 VIN engravings until March 31.
That council's work shadows bylaw amendments made in Leduc, south of Edmonton, which implemented a $1,000 fine for being found in possession of an unattached catalytic converter without a valid business licence for an automotive repair or supply business.
"I'm encouraged to see some municipalities have taken the initiative," said the Criminal Intelligence Service of Alberta's Paul Gregory.
"I think there's always room for improvement in relation to the legislation and I have been speaking with the Government of Alberta. It's still early to tell exactly what's going to happen, however we are looking at potentially making some amendments to the legislation and to the regulations to bolster that going forward."
In 2020, the EPF's Community Solutions Accelerator program was used to crowdsource a way to de-incentivize alcohol store robberies. Since implementing the brainchild of the local MacEwan University's Social Innovation Institute – installing ID scanners at store entrances – there has been a 95-per cent drop in thefts at those locations, officials say.
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