Mothers of invention;John Logie Baird Awards

16th July 1999 at 01:00
Pioneering product designers have often had a hard time bringing their projects to life. But, reports Douglas Blane, a Scottish company is now helping young innovators deliver the goods

John Logie Baird, the pioneer of television, is one of Scotland's most famous sons, but the brilliant inventor struggled financially for most of his life. On one occasion, he apparently walked out backwards at the end of a meeting with one of the BBC top brass to conceal a hole in the seat of his trousers. But this was a man who built a television from a tea-chest, a biscuit tin, cycle lamp lenses, scrap wood, sealing wax and cardboard.

Logie Baird might have found life easier if he could have called on the support of Scottish Innovation, a Glasgow-based consultancy company that provides help for budding inventors at the dawning of the 21st century, offering encouragement, advice and, occasionally, money.

Central to its efforts are the John Logie Baird Awards for innovation, which the company has been running every year since 1989, and which this year has a special award for young people - Young Innovator of the Year.

Managing director Laurence McGarry says:"We received a tremendous entry last year from a 17-year-old Ayrshire schoolgirl from Stewarton Academy, Rebecca Child, so this year we're encouraging more youngsters to enter. The adult competition closes at the end of June but we'll accept entries from young people until the end of September. All of the awards will be presented on November 2.

"We are looking for all sorts of ideas," he adds, "from high-tech to no-tech. One winner last year was an engineer from Paisley University who invented a device to protect eyes from laser beams. Then there was a nurse from Lothian who had an idea for a hypothermia alarm for old people. She saw an advert for the awards and decided to enter. Now with the help of Lothian Enterprise Trust she's had enquiries from all over the world and is opening a factory. Another man devised an anti-rocking device to increase the safety of working up a ladder. We get ideas on just about everything."

Scottish Innovation separates entrants into three groups - academic and medical researchers who want to bring a novel product to the marketplace, companies seeking to expand their product range, and individual inventors who are probably working from a spare room or garage. Until now young people have been included in the third group and so competed against adults with much more experience and resources.

All entries are sifted to weed out eccentric ideas such as perpetual motion machines. Then, a regional stage is followed by a national stage, at each of which inventions are judged by business and academic experts against a range of criteria such as market potential, originality and development stage. Most of the entries are at the drawing stage rather than working models. Every entrant receives feedback including advice on design, marketing and how to improve their product.

"What strikes me most is the enthusiasm of entrants," Mr McGarry concludes, "and it's up to us to harness that. Look at all the inventions by Scots in the past - Tarmac, television, the steam-engine, the telephone. If Scotland held the manufacturing and patent rights for all of those we'd be way ahead of the competition."

As I take my leave a stocky young man carrying two bulging brown envelopes, asks to see Mr McGarry. Maybe he's delivering the blueprints of another perpetual motion machine; maybe it's a useful little doofer for keeping your socks up; but perhaps Scottish Innovation has just got its hands on an invention that will change the world. On November 2, all will be revealed.

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