Women in spotlight at DCU/Fujitsu innovation awards

14 Jun 2013

(Left to right) Sheila Bridgeman, Prof Richard O'Kennedy and Kaylee Cherry display their DCU President's Awards for Innovation

Women have been well represented in the winning projects at the inaugural Dublin City University (DCU) President’s Awards for Innovation, sponsored by Fujitsu, which were announced last week. Claire O’Connell found out more.

A mobile app that can help visually impaired shoppers, an online payroll system that takes paper out of the equation and a potentially rapid and reliable measure for point-of-care assessment of cardiac disease. These were the innovations that scooped the top prizes last week at the the inaugural DCU President’s Awards for Innovation, sponsored by Fujitsu. 

That two of the three winners are women is something that pleased Fujitsu Ireland CEO Regina Moran.

“I was personally thrilled to see the female participants doing so well – from a personal perspective I liked that,” she says – though she hastens to add that she had no part in the judging process. “We weren’t involved in the judging or the selection of projects –  within the university system they picked the panel of people and I didn’t want to feel that Fujitsu in any way had an influence.”

Both the company and Moran are hugely supportive of the awards, which came about through discussions with DCU’s president, Prof Brian MacCraith.

“DCU’s strategy on innovation and its societal and economic benefit is very much aligned to what we are doing as a business,” says Moran, who is on DCU’s governing authority and enterprise advisory board and also did her own master’s degree at the university.

“In Fujitsu Ireland, we have put a huge emphasis on innovation, particularly in the last year or so, and we liked this idea that the DCU awards would be a reward mechanism for not just technical and research people but also for the support staff and the student population. And I think it’s great that within less than 12 months of that conversation we were at an awards ceremony.”

App for visually impaired shoppers

Kaylee Cherry won the student category for her work on Scandroid, a mobile app that helps visually impaired shoppers to know more about products. The idea came through the National Council for the Blind in Ireland, explains Cherry, who has just finished her fourth year in DCU studying digital media engineering.

“The NCBI came to my lecturer and asked if a student would undertake the project of creating an app to assist blind users, as they had had people saying something which would help them shopping would be very useful,” she says. “This would remove the need for assistance in the shop and give the user back some independence.”

The resulting barcode-scanning Android app is simply designed and uses a large font, she explains. “The main aim is to assist these people with identifying similarly shaped products – for example, if a blind person was to go into a shop and pick up a can of Coke and a can of orange they would not know which is which as they would feel the exact same. This app could then be used to scan for the barcode, do an internet search on this result and then read out what it is that they are holding.”

Cherry, who now hopes to develop Scandroid further, says she couldn’t believe it when she won. “With the amount of talent and innovation in DCU and especially being in a course which is mainly male dominated, I was in shock,” she says. “I never thought that I would win something as prestigious as this and I am very thankful to everyone.”

Getting rid of the paper

A payroll innovation to help reduce the time and (let’s face it) frustration involved with paper documents won the category for administration and support staff. Head of Payroll in DCU Sheila Bridgeman picked up the award, which recognised the work done in implementing an online system called My Payroll Self-Service to let staff access their financial documents online.

Previously, pay slips and tax documents had to be printed out and sent to individual staff, which soaked up time and resources, explains Bridgeman, but since 2011, DCU has been rolling out an online module where users can log on securely and see their details. 

“It means that people on and off campus can log in securely to their portal area and see all their historic pay slips and tax forms – we no longer have to print and distribute copies, and that is where the saving is.”

Though it sounds simple, implementing the module has involved a good deal of work in ensuring secure connections and Bridgeman credits the staff in payroll, human resources and the Information Systems & Services department for the initiative. 

The other big winner on the day was a team led by Prof Richard O’Kennedy of DCU’s Biomedical Diagnostics Institute, which collaborated with industry partner Biosurfit to engineer an antibody for C-reactive protein (CRP) with the aim of enabling more rapid and reliable assessment of cardiac disease at point of care. O’Kennedy picked up the academic and research category award for the innovation, which is soon to be evaluated at the Coombe Women’s Hospital, Dublin, and is due for commercial launch later this year. 

Cultural change of innovation

Moran was encouraged to see the breadth of entries for the awards from DCU, and describes how a recent initiative in Fujitsu Ireland also drew a wealth of ideas from staff through focus groups.  

“Our own programme generated about 1,000 ideas, which we are in the process of embedding in our business,” she says. “And what I liked was that the people that got involved came from across the company – service-desk people, engineers, business and HR – a full spectrum of people.”

Such innovation involves a “massive cultural change” within the company, notes Moran, and she sees it as an important driver of growth. “I intend Fujitsu to be the No 1 IT-services company in Ireland – it’s our intention to grow and we need to get everyone excited around that idea and get everyone involved. One person can’t make that change.”

Future awards

Fujitsu Ireland has signed up to support the innovation awards for three years with DCU, and MacCraith says he was delighted with the initial round. “This is one of our strategic initiatives to foster a culture of innovation in the university. I was hugely impressed with the calibre of the entries from all sectors of the university; academic staff, administrative staff and students – it validated our belief that everyone can be an innovator.” he says. “We certainly plan to continue this initiative and look forward to working with Fujitsu in this regard in the coming years.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication