Ireland’s young innovators ready to take on the world

1 May 2009

Despite a grilling from a Dragon’s Den-style panel, intense competition from colleges around the country and the prospect of searing global competition in Cairo, Ireland can rest easy in the knowledge that its young innovators dare to dream the dream.

In the apt setting of the Science Gallery in Dublin, and after surviving a frisking by a spook in a white coat and disease mask, I came face to face with the future of Irish innovation, and you can’t even attempt to quarantine this lot.

You couldn’t bottle the enthusiasm in the room at yesterday’s Irish finals for the Microsoft Imagine Cup, as initially tense but earnest young technologists relaxed and strutted their stuff before an exacting panel comprising Gerry Maguire of Atlantic Bridge Ventures; Kindle Software founder, Tony Kilduff; blogger Mick Fealty of Slugger O’Toole; and Aaron Jackson of Lightwell Limited.

Before awarding this year’s crop of contestants with Imagine Cup prizes and selecting the team, last year’s finalists were given a chance to present and seek investment.

First up were Clare Singleton, Chris McCormick, Jake Lowndes and Anthony McGuinness of Dundalk IT, who explored how their Sunny Town video game focused on teaching primary children to respect their environment could be commercialised.

With a year of development ahead of it, and the prospect that the game would be best given away free and its brand potential be harnessed, the panel concluded that the lack of computers in Irish schools would hamper its development.

Next up were last year’s Imagine Cup winners from NUI Maynooth – Team Acid Rain consisting of Karl O’Dwyer, Aodhan Coffey, Brian Byrne and Brian Lysight, who went on to represent Ireland in Paris – and their novel idea to run diesel cars on vegetable oil was revisited.

After regaling attendees with an hilarious tale of how the wheel came off their car as they drove from Maynooth to Paris with 120 litres of vegetable oil in the boot, and how after forgetting their GPS, friends following them on the web maps would scream directions down the phone to navigate their car through Paris, Team Acid Rain got down to business.

They revealed how manufacturers such as Kia have expressed an interest in their idea, and how snap-on converter devices could be manufactured to make the concept a mainstream success.

Brian Byrne bravely argued how the team aim to become the first vegetable oil-fuelled vehicle to pass the 100,000 mile road test, and how the idea could thrive in Third World countries where the fuel crop could be grown locally.

But the Dragons weren’t totally convinced, with both Kilduff and Maguire ruefully remembering how difficult the automotive industry is to deal with, especially now with a recession.

But Mick Fealty came to the rescue. “I’m sold”, he exclaimed. “The only problem is the product is aimed at diesel users. But I like your chutzpah, you have an open source view of development and we could create interesting combinations.”

The trauma of Irish traffic was recalled by Christina Luminea of Sligo IT, who presented traffic and parking server application developed by Kieran Stafford of Sligo IT that when plugged into a carpark or local authority CCTV system could interact with drivers’ mobile or GPS systems and navigate them to an available parking spot, cutting down on fuel wastage and quickly relieve congestion.

“Cars put out 500g of emissions when traffic is low, but when it is high and nothing is moving, this goes to 6,000g of emissions,” she said, giving a sturdy reason as to why speedier parking is in everyone’s interests.

The end market for the technology, she suggested, would be local and city authorities. The concept has been welcomed by authorities in Ireland and Romania and endorsed by MEPs from Ireland, Belgium and France.

Despite the positive feedback, the Dragons in good old Irish fashion quibbled and decided that having paid for the service’s development, there would be no money left to market it. Kilduff said: “I don’t fancy the chance of getting a network of this kind set up in a city like Galway – and then paying for marketing it to citizens – it would be a stretch to be commercially viable.”

As you will later see, Christina Luminea has innovation in her DNA and won’t give up. She just won’t.

Next up were Carbon Buddies, a team from IT Carlow who came up with a novel social networking-oriented plan to encourage people to car pool to take traffic off our roads and emissions out of the environment. The server-based application that would be built to work with Microsoft Azure would then be targeted at large organisations with significant numbers of employees and also universities.

Robert Allen and Ilya Birov of Carbon Buddies explained how users would simply input where they were coming from and going to via a map application based on and SQL Server, add in date and time, and, if there are enough matches, choose the driver.

Allen explained how the company is in collaboration talks with Limerick start-up and is seeking a pilot with one large business and one college campus.

Kilduff, Jackson and Maguire were all intrigued, but argued about a commercial model. Once again, it was Fealty who came to the rescue. “I’ll come along for the ride, I’ll give you what I can,” he promised.

As the Dragons concluded their judgments, Microsoft Ireland general manager Paul Rellis and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Mary Hanafin TD, (who, as Education Minister last year was smitten and determined to be back this year for the Imagine Cup) presented this year’s fresh batch of Imagine Cup winners.

The three teams that will be back next year to participate in the Innovation Accelerator Dragon’s Den will be: Health Text from IADT Dun Laoghaire; AmazED from Sligo IT (led by Christina Luminea – told you she’d be back); and NeuroSynergy from IT Carlow.

Christina Luminea was also back – again! – as the prize-winning designer of the Best Day Zero poster.

For the overall Imagine Cup prizes, a judging panel consisting of leading lights from Microsoft, Invest NI, the Irish Computer Society, Lenovo, Engineers Ireland and LERO deliberated and made their choices.

The third prize went to IT Sligo’s MediKnight project, which developed a system that allows experienced medical professionals in the developed world to link directly to medical staff working in under-developed regions.

The second prize went to IT Sligo’s AmazED, whose project aims to address the learning needs of young children, enabling them to teach themselves maths with the aid of an NXT Lego Mindstorm that would also teach them hand-eye coordination. At this stage, it was clear to the entire audience that the prolific Christina Luminea deserved an extra award for sheer enthusiasm and effort.

The first prize went to Trinity College-based Trinity Sight, who have created an affordable alternative to simulating eye-surgical training, in particular complex operations such as cataract removal surgery. If successful, the technology could speed the training of student doctors who need to perform these operations in countries in Africa, where needless blindness is widespread.

An ebullient Minister Hanafin said the students demonstrated “imagination combined with technical skills that suggest a great future for the country.

“Genuinely, we are depending on you,” she said. “Your ideas, your education, your entrepreneurial spirit and the energy you are able to bring to ensure the type of work will ensure we can carry on to set up our own companies, get investment and get patents.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Felim Ros McMahon, Eoin O’Brien, Maria Francesca O’Connor and Aidan Lynch, members of Trinity College Dublin’s team, ‘Trinity Sight’

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years