This globetrotting Galway teen is helping Parkinson’s patients free their feet

15 Apr 2016

Edel Browne (centre) with JCI Galway president Keith Killilea and JCI Ireland director of community Keira Keogh. Image via JCI Galway Ireland/Twitter

19-year-old Galway entrepreneur Edel Browne is developing Free Feet technology to help people with Parkinson’s disease.

On a sightseeing visit, tourists in London might get a glimpse of Number 10 Downing Street. But thanks to hard graft and her entrepreneurial flair, that door – and many others – have opened up for Galway teenager and entrepreneur Edel Browne.

The 19-year-old biotechnology student at NUI Galway is the co-founder of Free Feet Medical, a start-up developing technology to help people with Parkinson’s Disease overcome ‘gait freeze’ by shining a light in front of the foot.

In 2013, the Free Feet prototype won her the Best Individual Award at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE), and Browne has been on a meteoric journey ever since.

“Without a doubt it was a life-changing experience,” she recalled of the win. “The last few years have been a huge learning curve for me, but the BTYSTE has opened so many doors which really enabled me to make a difference and progress my business.”

Learning in London, growing in Galway

A landmark along Browne’s journey was the Outbox Incubator in London, where she spent six weeks last summer learning about STEM and business and making connections in the entrepreneurial world. You can read more about her experiences, and others’, here.

Fast-forward to today, and she is applying that learning as Entrepreneur in Residence at Blackstone Launchpad in NUI Galway, a campus-based programme to get students thinking about and translating new ideas.

Browne helps to register students to the programme and organise ‘show and tells’, where students showcase their ideas or projects to get feedback and inspire others.

Blackstone has been massively susbscribed since it launched just a few months ago (helmed by Mary Carty, Outbox co-founder and upcoming speaking at Inspirefest 2016), and Browne sees it as a “fantastic opportunity” for staff, alumni and students, including herself.

“From a personal perspective there are huge benefits, in terms of networking, gaining contacts and personal development,” she said. “I think, in terms of taking part, it really is a no-brainer.”

Living out of a suitcase

The Irish teenager had a whirlwind month in March, which involved her living out of a suitcase for a while. “I was named as one of 200 Founders of the Future, as part of the Founders Forum, and was invited to a reception at Number 10 Downing Street in recognition of this,” she said.

“It was a fantastic experience and it was a great chance to network with founders working in areas from stem cell research to engineering.”

As one of 30 Global Teen Leaders (GTLs), Browne also attended the Just Peace Summit in New York, held by Three Dot Dash and The We Are Family Foundation. She was joined on the trip by Irish GTLs Ciara Judge (another 2013 BTYSTE winner and co-founder of Germinaid Innovation) and Harry McCann (a serial creator of start-ups, including

“Three Dot Dash recognises and supports the work of GTLs who are working to promote a more peaceful society through addressing basic human needs of food, water, health, shelter, safety, education and the environment,” explained Browne.

“The Peace Summit was a fantastic and unforgettable experience for me. It really allowed me not only to develop Free Feet, but also to think about the motivation behind it, and how we can use our technology to improve health globally.

“I also had the honour to act as a delegate on the UN Youth Commission on the Status of Women Forum, which made recommendations with the potential to shape the UN Declaration on the Status of Women.”

JCI Galway Outstanding Young People of 2016

Edel Browne (right) pictured with fellow JCI Galway Ten Outstanding People of the Year Award-winners for 2016, and JCI Galway president Keith Killilea (centre). Photo via JCI Galway

Next steps for Free Feet

Browne has also recently scooped some high-profile awards – she was named as Top Outstanding Young Person of the Year for 2016 by JCI Galway for academic leadership and accomplishment, and Free Feet won first prize at the NUI Galway Student Enterprise Awards run by the NUI Galway Blackstone Launchpad and the Entrepreneurship Society, earning a cash prize and an eight-week internship in the Blackstone Launchpad for the summer.

“At the moment, Free Feet is still very much in the development stage, and through winning the Student Enterprise Awards we now have the funding and opportunity to develop our prototype and hopefully take it to the next stage,” she said.

“Through the wonderful mentors at Three Dot Dash and the Blackstone Launchpad we have loads of support and backing and I’m really looking forward to working on it, alongside my co-founder Dr Aoife Kirk, for the summer.”

‘The Peace Summit was a fantastic and unforgettable experience. It allowed me to think about the motivation behind Free Feet, and how we can use our technology to improve health globally’

Listen and take part

So what is Browne’s advice for the next generation of young innovators? Number one is to listen.

“That is one of the biggest lessons I have learned along the way,” she said. “So many people are willing to help young people who are trying to solve huge problems, but it’s really important to listen to them, and ask for advice.”

She also recommends that secondary school students with an interest in science and technology enter the BTYSTE. “Without a doubt, it has been a huge catalyst for innovation within the secondary school system,” she said. “And I think it’s important for students to make the most of their time in secondary school, as you have opportunities to be a part of loads initiatives such as the Student Enterprise Awards and the BTYSTE. They really give you an idea of what the practical applications of what your potential career path might be.”

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