Young scientists show how kids are the real smart economy we should be investing in

21 Jan 2010

Smart kids, smart technology and high-speed broadband will be integral to the nation’s future.

You don’t need to be a scientist to realise that a national economy in the 21st century cannot exist on traditional bricks and mortar industries. Indeed Ireland has learnt a painful lesson as a nation – you can’t export houses – and now we’re grappling to do what we should have done years ago: support young entrepreneurs to create sustainable world-facing businesses in the realms of science and technology.

Hopeful experience

Passing through the RDS at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition last week was an experience in hope. While this working generation will bear the brunt of the harsh economic winds of change, I left convinced that the kids of today, the next generation of workers, have the intelligence, the ambition and the confidence to do better things for their country than we did. We bought houses and mounted our debts, but they may build empires.

It was also clear that there is something your average 16-year-olds have that most of us adults don’t: a complete lack of fear. Experience and life teaches many of us to be cautious and cynical, but a 16-year-old doesn’t have such shackles.

BT Ireland CEO Chris Clark, scanning the kaleidoscope of uniforms dotting the RDS, readily agrees and waves his hand in the kids’ direction.

“This is the smart economy. I personally believe that the future success of developed economies will be around the knowledge economy and that is basically about young people.

“And what greater example can one get – this room is the smart economy, this is the future and there’s so much innovation happening in here. If we could as a country tap into this, then we’d have a bright future.” 

This was BT’s 10th year sponsoring the Young Scientist event, which traces its origins back to 1974, and this year BT received 1,588 projects from a record number of 329 schools with 520 of these taking part in last week’s competition.

Smart economy ambition

One of the important additions to the annual event is the BT Business of Science & Technology Programme to help bridge the gap between education and business, a critical challenge that Ireland needs to overcome to achieve its ambition of a smart economy.

The new BT programme creates a forum for 40 students selected from the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition to be mentored by leading executives and professionals from BT, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Bombardier, Bord Gáis Éireann, IP Innovations, University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Engineers Ireland and Bank of Ireland.

The students will gain practical business knowledge from the mentors through a series of workshops and master classes on subjects such as protecting intellectual capital, global marketing, international business, stakeholder communications, innovation principles and business strategy.

“I think this has huge potential,” says Clark. “If we can get more big companies and the Government involved, and start encouraging young people to take their ideas and give them a try, we can achieve something. Successful entrepreneurship means failure, as well.

“When you talk to these young people they are absolutely fearless. Sadly, for the rest of us, we grow up. But we really should be learning from the young people and just give things a go. That’s the challenge we all face in business.”

Innovation on display

What really opened my eyes at the event was the sheer innovation driven purely by the students themselves. For example, a group of sixth-class students from Ballycushion School, Kilmaine, Co Mayo built their own simple electric motor using batteries and copper wires.

But a few tin cans and a penknife were all Richard O’Shea, an 18-year-old Co Cork student, needed to get started on inventing a revolutionary biomass-fired cooking stove for developing countries that secured the top prize at this year’s exhibition.

Now O’Shea, from Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal in Blarney, wants to get these stoves to developing countries as fast as possible and he’s working with charities such as Trócaire and Concern to make it happen.

His design makes it possible to build highly efficient, smoke-free stoves from items such as tin cans.

Asked about how quickly he wants to bring his design to market, O’Shea says: “This is not about bringing it to market, this is not commercial. I just want to get this into the hands of the people who need it as soon as possible.”

He explains that every year thousands of people in the developing world who cook indoors in poorly ventilated homes die from smoke inhalation, so his biomass-fired cooking stoves could save lives.

“Over 2 billion people in the world depend on stoves to cook their meals every day, and his project built a new one that uses as little fuel as possible and which ideally produces no smoke,” explains Intel’s Leonard Hobbs, chief judge, technology.

“Richard made a strong impression on the judges with his detailed research into the chemical processes involved in burning timber, and with the various designs he came up with using very simple materials such as tin cans and nails.

“An added bonus is that his stoves can be built using simple tools, such as a Swiss Army knife. Richard impressed us with both his science knowledge and the engineering skill he showed in his construction work,” Hobbs explains.

Other projects

Walking around the event last week was a lesson in ingenuity. Andrej Pacher from Slovakia, who came to Ireland three years ago and who goes to Rockbrook Park School in Dublin, demonstrated how augmented reality could be used to drive the future of advertising, entertainment and media.

Thomas Dunne, a student from Colaiste Lorcáin, Kildare, beat the renowned Bill Gates in developing software to trace genes in malaria that are costing human lives. He explains: “One species of malaria is responsible for 80pc of infections and 90pc of deaths in humans. I used a combination of my own software and other software to track genes and find out what qualities this species has that the others don’t to make it so efficient at infecting humans and causing deaths.”

A final project I looked at was called by Ben McRedmond and Patrick O’Doherty from Gonzaga College, Dublin that uses 22 million Twitter status updates growing at 20 a second to predict the outcome of events.

“Last year I was watching the Britain’s Got Talent final and everyone thought Susan Boyle was going to win because she was such a huge hit,” says McRedmond.

“I did some analysis and put together a quick programme that would count everything on Twitter, all the things from Susan Boyle to win and Diversity to win and Diversity was ahead. I thought this method couldn’t possibly work to predict things and then two hours later the winner was Diversity. That’s where this project started.”

His pal O’Doherty explains how the prediction engine got built. “Long nights and quite a few man hours have gone into it. We see this hopefully being a commercial product where we would license it to companies wishing to track public response into whatever they want to monitor – from a new TV show, or a new product – to see what the most-talked-about keyword is. This is really useful information for marketing people if they want to properly track their products.”

More than ever, Ireland needs to better encourage and support young people like these. While we watch The X Factor on long winter evenings and wish our lives away, courageous, young minds are every year working on the wow factor. I think it’s time they began teaching us.

By John Kennedy

Photo: A jubilant Richard O’Shea (centre) with BT Ireland CEO Chris Clark and the Minister for Science, Technology, Innovation and Natural Resources, Conor Lenihan TD. With a few tin cans and a Swiss Army knife, O’Shea invented a stove that could improve the lives of two billion people around the world

Digital 21 – Digital 21 is a campaign to highlight the imperative of creating an action programme to secure the digital infrastructure and services upon which the success of the economy depends.

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