Dr. Kate Stone’s got an hour to speak before she’s to do a live virtual Q-and-A with fans who’ve just seen her talk as part of the University of Michigan’s Penny Stamps lecture series. Boxes are piled up around her in the Glenford house she’s occupied for the past three years, high on a switchback overlooking the Ashokan Reservoir. She’s got a week to get everything into storage before she and her 21-year old daughter Lydia head out on a ten-day driving adventure to L.A. They’ll be there until the next phase of Dr. Stone’s wildly creative life takes shape in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where investors are building her a new laboratory and factory.
We’d been hearing about this ultra-creative mechanical wiz living in the hills outside Woodstock. She’s been making a name for herself via TED talks and other keynote speeches about investing the magic of new technology into old-fashioned things, of slowing life down without going Luddite. From what we read about her, Stone was not only an eloquent ambassador for our Upstate glories involving nature and elegantly quiet introspection, but a clear example of the many ways in which the Hudson Valley and Catskills have long drawn great thinkers (and doers) to its hills and valleys.
But she’s moving. Turns out that the Covid surge in real-estate prices, especially involving rentals, has pushed her away — albeit with the strong sense, from the doctor and her daughter, that they’ll surely be back.
I ask her to explain what she does. She’s spent 20 years now trying to hone her answer, so she demurs a moment. “My team and I look at how we can apply magical interactivity to everyday objects,” she says.
Printed posters one can touch to activate talk and music, cutting-edge technology that looks old-fashioned, is the main product her team’s ideas have been manifested in, to date, Stone explains.
How did she get to her breakthroughs, what’s made her such a hot item on the pioneers circuit?
Kate Stone began life in a small English village in Cheshire – “a church at the center, a hill and a canal running through the middle of everything.” Her father was a mechanical engineer who eventually concentrated on work on the Arabian peninsula. Her younger life was a blur of outdoor adventures and trips with dad to learn how turbines were made, say, or the entire series of processes involved at the nearby Land-Rover factory.
Eventually, Stone ended up in a Welsh boarding school, where she relished her penchant for taking things apart and putting them back together. On her holiday breaks she’d visit her father for desert trips in Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
“Eventually, my parents bought me a ticket to Australia,” she said. “I was not a good student, and I ended up working on a variety of farms there, eventually making my way deep into the Outback, where I would pick up electronics magazines, teaching myself about the science of mechanics.”
Stone maneuvered her way into college, and eventually went to Salford University and then did doctoral work at Cambridge. That, she noted, was the beginning of a process of scientific and personal exploration that led her to today’s unique mixture of magical appearances and practical, new-technology mechanics.
“I did a lot of work on making transistors out of plastics,” she recalled. “I was hired by a start-up where I told the CEO, in my interview, that I was aiming to start my own business, too.”
Dr. Stone formed her own team. She created a clean room in her home’s garage, applied for and won a governmental grant for what she and her team at Novalia, her firm, wanted to work on, and then was given a real laboratory in a Cambridge development campus. All was made affordable by a two-day-a-week gig with Hitachi, “just to be around and be generally useful.”
Gradually, her role shifted. She spent more time in London, then New York and Los Angeles, speaking with investors, setting up test product runs. She thought about the ways in which meetings and new horizons would just appear – on a train ride, at a party – in the U.S.
“That never occurred in Cambridge or London,” she said. “I started thinking about making a big move.”
Dr. Stone mentioned her thought process to a professor in New York who found her a visiting scholar position at NYU, including an apartment in campus housing in the middle of Greenwich Village. From there it was a mere bus ride north, and a few visits to the getaway homes of new New York friends, before she found herself resettled overlooking the Ashokan Reservoir and distant Catskills and Shawangunks.
Around the same time, Dr. Stone started getting invitations to do TED talks and other keynote speeches about what she was doing, including the genesis of her thought process in her rambling life. She perceived the growing role that the natural world was playing in what she was doing.
She created an artist-like studio in her rental home, the better to sharpen her newly in-demand skills leading her team, doing business, and shaping a narrative to sell what they were working at at Novalia. She’d make trips to New York City to meet with Nickelodeon, say, or to L.A. to talk brands, advertising. The use of her new printed interactivity was a valuable teaching tool. It seemed that everyone wanted a bit of what Dr. Stone and her team have been developing.
She became friends with Meira Blaustein of the Woodstock Film Festival. She met a fellow scientist creating machines that artists can use who recommended Stone to an investor in Kingston who offered her a laboratory. He’s currently exploring the building of a new laboratory and factory for Novalia’s projects in Brooklyn.
“I’ve been in Woodstock three years, minus a few months spent in Seattle working with Amazon,” she added. “My daughter Lydia, 21 and figuring out what she wants to do in life, decided to join me here.” (Dr. Stone’s 18-year-old daughter has remained in school in the United Kingdom).
The Glenford lease kept getting extended by six-month allotments. Then the pandemic hit.
“I’ve always prided myself on my resilience,” said Dr. Stone. “We had three months of food here before any lockdowns were announced.”
Before Dr. Stone or her daughter were ready for it, their landlords had made a sale … giving them a fortnight to move. “It was instantly clear there was nowhere to rent here,” she said. “It’s a small market, around Woodstock, and any small amount of fluctuation in Manhattan real estate saturates our market. We could not afford to live in this area any more.”
Dr. Stone and daughter Lydia got an offer from a friend in L.A. – between downtown and Venice Beach – for her home while she moved to Europe for a spell. A decision was made to move things into storage until the Red Hook deal came to fruition, and make an adventure of a drive west, including car camping along the way.|
Stone added that Woodstock, and the entire Hudson Valley and Catskills region, has gotten deep into her bones, into her way of thinking and creating. She wants to maintain her contacts here… maybe even return to a home of her own in the area. She spoke about how she spent these past Covid months learning to be a ham-radio operator, enjoying its civility, its raw creativity and bonhomie.
She also talked about having adapted her live speeches and TED Talks style to something not-quite-Zoom, and distinctly her own type of presentation (see the recent Penny Stamp talk at https://youtu.be/V6gdFtqCR2Y).
Dr. Stone addressed all she’d gained from her time Upstate, being not just in but of the surrounding nature, the ancient elements embedded in the area. “I’m thinking a lot of old-fashioned things and how to being them back into the world,” she said.
She also spoke of “the importance of friction,” as opposed to the desire to remove friction from our lives. “The more we remove such things, the more we disconnect,” Stone said. “The community up here seems to get that. Or has gotten it.”
She paused. “With all the new people buying places and moving up here,” she added, “I just hope the community can keep what they have.”