Winning ways with technology

21st March 2008 at 00:00

A device for checking crab and lobster pots and a diabetes self- testing kit won the approval of the ICT Youth Challenge judges

Carly Mackay knows how disheartening it can be for fishermen to head out to sea and haul up empty creels. The 15-year-old, from Scullomie on the north coast of Caithness and Sutherland, takes a boat out into the bay with her two sisters to check creels for crab and lobster on most days in the summer.

"We put out about 25 creels. It takes about two hours to check them and usually more than half would be empty," says the fourth-year pupil at Farr High in Thurso. But the girls' efforts are nothing compared to their dad's - he and his employees have a couple of thousand to haul up every few days.

So when it came to the ICT Youth Challenge competition in the Highlands and Islands, Carly's goal was to save creel fishers time and money. Her classmate Justine Mackay knew it was a good idea, because her dad is also a creel fisherman. And with the help of their friend Jessica Bostock, the girls came up with a winning solution.

"It's a method of detecting whether there's any crab or lobster in the creels without lifting them up from the sea," Justine explains.

Apart from that, the girls remain tight-lipped about the idea, which has still to be patented. Local fishermen gave it the thumbs-up when they asked their views. "Everybody said they thought it would work and it was a good idea," says Justine.

The competition judges thought so too, and last year the girls won a trip to tour the research facilities of one of the sponsors, BT in Ipswich.

"We want to do something with the idea," says Carly, who admits schoolwork has kept them too busy so far to develop their plans further.

The ICT Youth Challenge was launched five years ago by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and is run by a private consortium headed by ITP Solutions in Inverness with sponsors BT, Microsoft and the University of the Highlands and Islands. The competition is open to 11- to 20-year-olds who live in the region and looks for innovative information and communication ideas that develop new technologies or use existing ones in an original way.

Pupils from another coastal town won last year with an idea for a diabetes self-testing kit, winning them state-of-the-art laptop computers.

In a local cafe, three of the five-strong team from Buckie Community High, in Moray, explained how their idea had developed over the course of the competition.

"My mum is a dietician, so we knew we could get background information, and when we told her about the idea she said it would be good because there was a need for it," explains Megan Wielewski, 18.

Megan, who is now taking business studies at Moray College in Elgin, is making time to meet her team-mates to plan how to raise pound;5,000 to patent their idea. It is more than six months since they won the competition, but the Buckie Hot House Challengers are still enthusiastic about finding a route to market their invention.

Their kit provides a non-intrusive test for diabetes, which can be done at home, rather than visiting a GP for blood tests which are then sent to a lab for screening.

"You just go to the toilet and pee on the strip and insert it into the machine. The screen tells you whether you are positive or negative," Megan explains. For obvious reasons, they are keen to keep secret the finer detail about how it works.

"The competition was really good. It was something you wouldn't get in school, where everything is taken out of a textbook," Megan says.

Her friend Rachel Sammon also enjoyed the experience, particularly the last days, when finalists spend a week working on their products and learning how to develop them.

"It was really interesting to hear how you go about patenting and how you get your idea from being just a thought to an actual product," says Rachel, who plans to study photography.

Team members Sarah Stewart and Stuart Farquhar have started university in Aberdeen, and Daniel Wood is joining the navy. "I enjoyed it because we met so many different people," he says.

"To see an idea come from something that started as a bit of a laugh, to something serious was the best bit for me. I would put my career on hold to do this," Daniel adds.

A by-product of the competition has been a boost in self-confidence, especially when the team had to make presentations on their idea to high- powered business executives.

"We decided we would do absolutely everything as a team. None of us enjoyed talking to audiences - we are quite shy - so we just decided that if no one likes it, everyone's going to do it," says Megan.

The teenagers show no lack of confidence now. They brim with enthusiasm for their idea and are full of self-deprecating humour.

What did they learn about themselves from the contest? "We all realised we had quite short attention spans and got diverted quite easily," says Megan.

They also recognise that taking part was no bad thing for career opportunities. "It's really good for the CV," says Megan. "When I went to college for the interview for my course, that's all they asked me about. They were really interested."

Marie Burness, the business education teacher at Buckie High, supported them throughout. "They learned so much - team work, leadership - and they really managed to organise themselves. It was a good opportunity for them."

During the contest, the team met staff from Inverness-based Lifescan Scotland, a world leader in the blood glucose monitoring market and developer of self-testing products for diabetes patients, and toured the company headquarters.

A spokeswoman said: "As with all external ideas, we forwarded this to our business development group for evaluation. In this case, we were particularly pleased to do so. The Buckie Challengers impressed us with their professionalism and enthusiasm."

John Mackenzie, development manager with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said ideas generated by the competition had been fantastic: "We have seen some really, really great ideas."

This year, more than 140 teams entered the competition. The semi-final was held this week, and the hothouse week to find the winner will be in June.

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