Why this student is designing tools to help children learn to write

8 Oct 2019

Michael Upham. Image: TechWatch

Inc Skills is one of 12 finalists in the upcoming Invent 2019 competition. TechWatch’s Emily McDaid spoke to founder Michael Upham to find out more.

Michael Upham built a product as a school project in 2017 and incorporated it as a company last month.

For his A-level course in product design, he canvassed the opinions of teachers at a local primary school, asking them what problems they were facing in teaching their students.

“The teachers told me a lot of children were coming into primary school without basic writing skills,” Upham says. “This is bad for most children, but for kids with dyspraxia or other learning difficulties, it’s especially bad – in these cases, the fine motor skills of their hands may be underdeveloped.”

With that in mind, he started looking into creating a product that could help children learn to write.

Accessibility tools

After secondary school in his hometown of Leeds, Upham moved over to Belfast for his degree. He’s now in his second year as a mechanical engineering student at Queen’s University Belfast.

“I designed a couple of products that are primarily for younger children but can be used up until about 11 years of age. One of them directly strengthens muscles in the hands,” he says.

Upham adds that he also has other products in design, including a large class-sized set of tools that are based on chess pieces – so a whole class full of children could benefit from them.

“Kids don’t want to be seen as having a problem that would isolate them from other children,” he says. “So the product design has to take that into account.”

A final product that Inc Skills will aim to get into production is targeted at children with dyslexia. Upham says that dyslexic children can read and write better on a coloured page, rather than the typical black text on a white page.

“This tool looks like a bookmark that tints the colour of the page – it’s an acrylic overlay but it’s only the size of one line – so they don’t slip down lines when they’re reading. It allows kids to access books that you find on the high street or in the library,” he says.

‘Accessibility and inclusivity are the two main aims of this company’

Upham has been involved in sports and music from a young age. He started athletics when he was 12 and trampolining when he was 19.

“I wanted to get gymnastics conditioning training to help with my pole vaulting,” he says. The trampolining then took him to both the Irish Open and the Scottish Open competitions for athletics, and he also competes for Queen’s.

On the music side, he says that he plays in jazz and swing bands, playing trombone and singing.

But, looking ahead, what are Upham’s ambitions for Inc Skills?

“Accessibility and inclusivity are the two main aims of this company,” he says. “A year ago this company was just a bit of a dream – I thought why not? Give it a go. First year university students typically don’t start companies, but I thought, let’s just give it a try.”

About Inc Skills:

  • The company will produce sets of different grips that fit over a pencil and can help children to build muscle tone as they learn to write
  • The current prototypes are 3D printed, but in the future they might be injection-moulded to produce them on a larger scale
  • One product looks like a pair of tweezers on a pen, which helps kids get used to gripping a pen correctly, while other products are specifically to help kids with dyslexia
  • Inc Skills will be run as a non-profit company, Upham says, “so the products can be in every school across the UK and Ireland – so even schools that don’t have much money can have access to these products”


By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch.

Inc Skills is a finalist in the annual Invent competition run by Catalyst, aiming to showcase the best and brightest innovators that Northern Ireland has to offer. Invent 2019 will take place on Thursday 10 October in Belfast, where 12 finalists will battle it out for a £33,000 prize fund.

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland