BTYSTE: 20 years of young sci-tech minds creating a brighter future

10 Jan 2022

Students Buhlebethu Afriye and Valencia Musongi. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

As we dive through 20 years of STEM, we took a closer look at one of the cornerstones of Ireland’s sci-tech scene: The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition.

Celebrating 20 years of Silicon Republic, 2001-2021.

Every year, a national competition showcases some of the most amazing talent from the brightest young science and technology minds from around Ireland.

The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) features projects from thousands of secondary school students, many of which seek to tackle the challenges faced by many different parts of the planet, from improving tractor safety on the farm to detecting deepfakes online.

The competition has also seen many of its winners go on to take the top prize at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS). In fact, last year saw Ireland’s 16th winner in the EU competition’s 32-year history.

With the 2022 event set to kick off online this week (12-14 January), we wanted to take a look at the BTYSTE’s place in the last 20 years of STEM.

While the national competition was first founded in 1965 as a science exhibition, 2001 marked a major milestone when BT became the sponsor and organiser of the event.

This also introduced the technology category and the launch of the inaugural Primary Science Fair, which is run alongside the main exhibition each year.

The years that followed saw an incredible onslaught of science and technology projects and a few notable winners who went on to do some incredible things.

BT Ireland’s managing director Shay Walsh said the exhibition is a proven platform for raising students’ engagement in STEM as well as encouraging R&D, innovation and entrepreneurship.

“We’re proud to see so many of our alumni become trailblazers, which really proves the exhibition’s worth as an effective launchpad for the brightest young minds on this island,” he said.

“Past participants have become successful scientists, academics, researchers and high-tech entrepreneurs, each of them making a positive impact in their own way around the world.”

Notable winners

In 2005, a young Patrick Collison won the BTYSTE with his project CROMA – a new programming language based on one of the world’s first, Lisp, which was originally specified in the ’50s.

Collison and his brother John, who also won a prize in the BTSYTE, went on to found payments giant Stripe, which is now valued at around $95bn.

In 2007, overall winner Abdusalam Abubakar went on to win the top prize at the EUCYS for his project on cryptography.

Six years later, Émer Hickey, Sophie Healy-Thow and Ciara Judge scored a hat trick, winning at the 2013 BTYSTE, the overall prize at EUCYS and the grand prize at the global Google Science Fair.

The following year the trio were also named among the top 25 most influential teenagers in the world by Time magazine. Their project involved a statistical investigation of the effects of Diazotroph bacteria on plant germination. It aimed to provide a solution to low crop yields by pairing a nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil with cereal crops.

In 2017, 16-year-old Shane Curran took home the perpetual trophy for his project – a quantum-secure, encrypted data storage solution with multi-jurisdictional quorum sharing.

Since then, Curran has founded infosec company Evervault, which has offices in Dublin and San Francisco and raised $16m in Series A funding in 2020.

In 2019, BTYSTE alumnus Fionn Ferreira won the grand prize at the global Google Science Fair with his project based around removing microplastics from water. Ferreira went on to become a speaker at the World Economic Forum.

And last year’s winner Greg Tarr, whose project set out to put powerful computing power to work detecting deepfakes, has since gone on to found Inferex. The company has raised more than $1m in seed funding from investors in Ireland and Europe.

Transforming the event

It wasn’t just the winners themselves that were making waves during these years, as the event continued to expand and develop.

In 2006, BT introduced an accommodation grant to help students and schools with expenses incurred for accommodation during travel to the exhibition.

Since then, the organiser has awarded more than €1m to schools that are more than 70km outside of Dublin to ensure that every student has the opportunity take part in the BTYSTE, regardless of location.

In 2010, the exhibition launched its first Business Bootcamp – a four-day business mentoring programme, where 30 BTYSTE students are selected each year to participate in a deep dive into the world of technology commercialisation and entrepreneurship.

This includes how to write a business plan, create a marketing campaign, draft a budget and present their ideas competently to senior academics and business people.

Previous winning projects of the bootcamp have included an app designed to aid those with autism and a reusable braille translator that aims to enhance the experience of reading and browsing the internet for people with visual impairments.

2012 marked the first year of Young Scientist Tanzania, an annual national exhibition for young scientists modelled on Ireland’s BTYSTE. Young Scientist Tanzania also has a national science outreach programme to complement the exhibition.

In 2014, the Irish exhibition celebrated its 50th year, with the competition’s very first winner, John Monahan, joining the judging panel. Monahan has continued to judge every year since then.

The following year, the BTYSTE introduced Irish University Association (IUA) scholarships for senior winners. The scholarship scheme aims to encourage and reward participation by second-level students in science and technology.

Since the scholarships were first announced in 2015, the IUA has awarded more than 40 second-level students scholarships to their choice of IUA member universities.

Going virtual

In 2020, BT celebrated 20 years as the organiser and custodian of the national science exhibition.

“In our time, we’ve watched the exhibition grow exponentially, from the numbers of entries to the number of visitors through the door each year. We’ve extended it out to our younger scientists with the introduction of the Primary Science Fair and supported our students with mentoring and university bursaries to help them on the next stage of their STEM education journey,” said Walsh.

However, not long after that event took place, the Covid-19 pandemic was making its way around the world, quickly shutting down in-person events and large gatherings.

This meant 2021 saw the first ever virtual BTYSTE take place, which welcomed online visitors from more than 70 countries around the world.

The virtual exhibition became a multiple award-winning show, winning both a PRII award and Covid Comms award. The exhibition is gearing up for another virtual event later this week and those interested in checking out the event can register on the BTYSTE portal.

“In 2021 and 2022, we made the decision to go ahead with a virtual BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, because we believe it’s as important as ever to inspire and support young people to change the world through STEM,” said Walsh.

“The future can only get brighter for our talented young scientists and we are proud to be supporting them on this exciting journey.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com