Young tech entrepreneurs steal the show

14 Jan 2003

When 16-year-old Adnan Osmani scooped the Young Scientist of the Year award in the RDS last week, not only was it the first time a technology entry won the big gong, it also signalled a new type of winner.

The Leaving Cert student from St Finian’s College in Mullingar could just as easily have been picking up the prize for young entrepreneur of the year at the Esat BT Young Scientist of the Year Exhibition 2003.

Entitled, ‘The Graphical, Technological and User-friendly Advancement of the Internet Browser: Xweb’, the project was the fruition of two years of work for an IT hobbyist who has been playing around with computers since he was 10 and programming since 12.

The objective of Xweb was to improve ease of use of internet browsers with a user-friendly interface that includes an animated character that reads out web pages. More significantly, it also tackled the thorny issue of download speeds.

“The browser incorporates a novel algorithm that can increase the internet access speed fourfold facilitating multifunctional usage,” claims Osmani, who says he patented the technology the day before he received the award. When he finishes his education he hopes to set up his own internet company.

If the winner and a clutch of other entrants occasionally offered some telling echoes of the grown up world of technology, for the most part it was a back to the school Beano for participating students.

Tellingly, many of them had abandoned their posts entirely when the judging took place on Thursday afternoon, suggesting that a substantial number of ‘scientists’ were more interested in extra-curricular activities surrounding the event. And why not. The function of Young Scientist is to make science interesting, relevant and fun. Many of the 2,350 entrants embarked on whacky projects that sounded like tabloid headlines designed to instil hysteria among parents: ‘Social Drugs – Fashion or Addiction?’, ‘Shocking Smoking Statistics – Teenage Girls in Ireland’, ‘Tooth Decay from Soft Drinks’. But it wasn’t all about the excesses of youth.

Several projects offered more sober and localised interests. ‘Is Athlone Healthy?’ asked Our Lady’s Bower; ‘How Wheelchair-Friendly is Wexford Town?’ pondered Loreto Secondary School.

Presumably projects were picked because they encouraged different types of methodology, from painstaking research and analysis to the implementation of scientific principles. Occasionally you felt the heavy-handed presence of teachers trying too hard to be worthy, but for the most part topics seemed close to teenage hearts.

No surprise then that there were numerous projects on mobile phones, from the perils of frazzled brains to texting as a social disease. There was also a fair amount of research carried out on music and games.

The further you ventured into the RDS hall the more studious the undertakings. Four project categories were on show starting with social and behavioural science, once again the most strongly contested category with 180 entrants. Biological and ecological science came next represented with 144 projects. Then it was into the altogether more cerebral section, the 91 projects devoted to chemical, physical and mathematical sciences.

Just when you thought it was all over, you found yourself in the company of aspiring young boffins in the technology section. This is where the subsequent winner was to be found.

The irony is that although the event is billed as the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, there was a rather paltry 62 tech exhibits, spread out in a narrow ribbon across the back of the hall. However, because these projects are largely the work of individuals rather than teams, it played host to some of the most ambitious undertakings and interesting characters.

Sponsors Esat BT would have been bemused to see two candidates offering do-it-yourself wireless local area network solutions, one with antennae made out of a Pringles tub and a fruit can. The makeshift materials didn’t prevent student Caoimhin O’Briain from transmitting data over a distance of 1.6km.

A few stands along, David Adley was conducting similar experiments under an eye-catching banner: ‘Wireless Networking – Ireland’s Broadband Solution?’ Spurred on by the painful amount of time it took to download music from the internet using a standard 56Kbps modem, Adley had constructed his own kit and proved the technology was not just viable but considerably cheaper than the commercial offerings.

On the next stand, Mark Grenham from Athlone made no bones about being part of the anti-Microsoft lobby, showing off NetBox, his home-built alternative to a Windows server. “The prototype cost €600 to build, while Microsoft’s Windows 2000 software alone costs the guts of €1,000,” reasoned Grenham. “And then you have to pay the annual licence fee. It’s ridiculous!” Indignant open source fans are clearly getting younger.

More entrepreneurial enthusiasm came from Gareth Wood, 13, from Dunboyne. He had discovered how the GSM mobile phone signal interferes with other electronic devices and came up with a radio receiver to detect the radio frequency radiation pulses of a phone. He had clearly defined the target market for his product, reckoning that teachers would relish the ability to detect pupils using their phones in the classroom. “I’m going to try to sell it to the school!” he said. Who says Ireland is lacking in entrepreneurs?

By Ian Campbell