Inventive teens take aim at tricky healthcare challenges

17 Nov 2020

Image: Team Memory Haven

Talking to the next generation of tech innovators at Future Human, it’s clear that young people have a passion for building solutions with a positive impact.

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Margaret Akano, Rachael Akano and Joy Njekwe – three teenagers from Drogheda, Co Louth – found themselves in the global spotlight this summer when their app, Memory Haven, took home a top prize at an international competition.

Team Memory Haven was the only team from the EU to make it to the senior division finals at the Technovation World Summit in August and came out triumphant. Their success was no small feat. The Technovation finalists were challenged to come up with apps that could make a positive impact on the world and, this year, 5,400 students from 62 countries submitted more than 1,500 apps for the contest.

Speaking at Future Human, the virtual event hosted by Silicon Republic in October, Margaret Akano said: “The Memory Haven app is an app created to support and promote the independence of people living with dementia while also empowering their families and supporting caregivers and medical practitioners.”

Margaret acted as project manager for the team, her younger sister Rachael served as financial manager, and Joy was their sales manager. Over the course of 12 weeks, the Memory Haven team developed an app with eight main features.

Based on research indicating that musical memories are relatively undamaged by dementia, Memory Haven includes a music playlist. There’s also a photo wallet that allows users to upload, share and receive photos that are tagged using artificial intelligence. Cognitive puzzles have also proven helpful to dementia patients, so Memory Haven includes a memory game too.

The app also allows users to check-in on both their health status and their mood. Face and voice recognition technology is included to help those with dementia to recognise friends and family members, and a reminder function alerts both the patient and caregivers of important tasks such as taking medication. The app also includes a reach-out feature and emergency contacts are stored for easy access.

Working remotely throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the girls connected with Clodagh Whelan, advocacy, engagement and participation officer at The Alzheimer Society of Ireland, to validate their design, and the feedback from this meeting and their own surveys informed improvements as development went on.

There are around 50m dementia patients worldwide, with nearly 10m new cases added every year. And that doesn’t account for the families and friends affected by this disease. But it was just one dementia patient who actually inspired Team Memory Haven.

Speaking to NPR, Evelyn Nomayo, the team’s mentor, explained that her mother started having problems with dementia three to four years ago and sadly passed away earlier this year.

As well as inspiring the app through her lived experience, Nomayo proved an inspiration for Team Memory Haven’s interest in STEM.

“She is a woman in tech herself and through her words of encouragement, motivation and wisdom, I was able to develop a love and appreciation for the world of tech,” said Margaret.

Nomayo has lit this spark in many young people through summer camps to introduce them to the tech industry with practical elements such as coding lessons and entrepreneurial challenges.

“It helped us get to grips with the relationship between tech and business,” said Joy.

Their interest ignited, the Memory Haven team brought their idea to a few local competitions before entering into the Technovation challenge.

‘After we won the competition, so many people were surprised that black girls were even able to attempt to make a solution to solve a social problem’

Nomayo, who has a background in computer science, has turned her hand to social entrepreneurship to support young women such as the Memory Haven team to diversify the STEM pipeline. In 2018, she founded Phase Innovate, a not-for-profit, to bridge the gender and race gap across these sectors through education and structured mentoring.

“Most ethnic minority young girls, they don’t see that field as if it’s their own. They see it as is exclusively reserved for men,” Nomayo said at Future Human. “To be honest with you, that’s girls generally, so I just took it upon myself to see how we can break that notion of ‘the boys’ thing’.”

This has come in the form of BAMETech summer camps, running since 2018, and mentorship for teams entering Technovation and other contests.

“I decided to get involved with Technovation because I realised that if these girls do not have a goal, if it’s just training them on IT, I just felt it’s not sustainable, it’s not enough, because they have their schoolwork to do,” explained Nomayo.

“I just felt that if it’s a competition, something that would actually motivate them, I felt that will be a game changer.”

As a Technovation ambassador for Ireland, Nomayo mentored 16 girls this year, which is actually fewer than the previous year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We’re lucky four of the teams got to semi-finals, which is the top 100 in the world,” she said, proudly.

Nomayo and her mentees have now all been nominated for the 2020 Women of Europe Awards in the women in business category. The team was nominated by European Movement Ireland and the organisation’s CEO, Noelle O Connell, acknowledged the difference their work could make to the lives of people with dementia and their families.

“Team Memory Haven have been leaders in paving the way for women in Ireland, in particular for young women and those from underrepresented communities, to succeed as they have in business and STEM,” she said.

As well as award nominations and further app development, the Memory Haven team have more STEM in store for their futures. Margaret is studying medicine at university, hoping to specialise in precision medicine, using technology to assist medical practitioners. Rachael hopes to move onto international business and IT at third level, while Joy is looking to computer science and engineering.

They are all equally hopeful for a more diverse future in STEM. “I feel like we’re slowly heading towards representation but I don’t think we’re there yet,” said Joy. “Because, for example, after we won the competition, so many people were surprised that black girls – specifically, girls – were even able to attempt to make a solution to solve a social problem in their area.

“I feel like we have this stigma behind girls especially getting into tech and it’s challenging. But at least we’re trying to break it with all these competitions and just putting awareness out there is helping this problem. And, eventually, I believe that we will one day be fully represented in the tech industry.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.