15 November 2007

Innovating for Africa

Last night I attended the British Library's Teenpreneurs event, which will be webcast in a week or two to join those for our previous functions.

There was a panel of four people who, as teenagers, had started businesses or, in one case, been an inventor.

There was Fraser Doherty, who at the age of 14 began making jams containing grape juice (which as a sweetener is better for you than sugar) and healthy fruits like cranberries and blueberries. His SuperJam™ is already available in Waitrose and will soon be in Tesco. Now still only 18, he sorted out the contracts, such as with companies owing factories, himself. And all based on granny's recipes.

Ben Way formed his first company when he was 15, and has been a serial innovator in various computer applications. Wiped out by the dotcom crash, he is back with his Rainmakers company. I found the fact that he is severely dyslexic all the more inspiring that he has achieved so much.

Then there was Wilson Chowdhry, who founded a security firm when he heard that there was a desperate shortage of security staff at construction site in London's Docklands renovation work. He simply used his fellow university students as staff and began to build up business, which grew even faster when he discovered that there were NVQ qualifications for security staff, and got them all trained. Training is in fact now an important element of AA Security's work.

These were all very interesting stories, but the one that I personally found most profound was Emily Cummin's message. She is 20, and explained about her love of technology, which stemmed from "helping" in Grandad's toolshed as a toddler. Highly determined and focussed, she is a "serial ethical inventor" who is very interested in ecological solutions for Africa's problems.

She designed a water carrier -- basically a wheeled structure holding buckets -- to save the time spent fetching water. That was one school project. Another was a refrigerator with double walls within which was wet wool, with the evaporation causing cooling. Having tried out her ideas while living in a township in Namibia, which she found a profound experience, she is now working on solar powered refrigerators to store medicines. Having already won prizes, at present Emily is a 2nd year student at Leeds University.

Africa is close to my heart too, if only after seeing for myself on an overland from Nairobi to Victoria Falls the lack of amenities we take for granted in the West. Take electrical supplies. Many villages have none, and most activities have to be done in daylight. An alternative, at least in one Malawi village I stayed in, is to use hurricane lanterns, but they consume expensive fuel, and do not power appliances such as ovens. Firewood is often scarce and chopping down trees degrades the environment.

I'd like to see the cheap, flexible sheets of solar panels which are apparently on their way being made available to such villages so that they could collect sunlight on, say, roofs, and power appliances. Some sort of battery would presumably be needed to store the power for use at night. Apparently a problem with such sheets is that they are "bendy" because the cells are thin, making them only one third as efficient as normal cells. WO 2007123927 is an example of an flexible panel. An advantage of making them bendy, it strikes me, is that they can be rolled up and stored overnight to protect from theft, or easily carried around.

That doesn't mean, of course, that wind-up radios and the like aren't useful in a region where batteries are expensive. Come to that, why don't fitness clubs here generate power from all those treadmills and send it to the national grid ? Probably not worth it, but it's a thought.

20 September 2007

One Laptop per Child

Ben has just commented on my posting about windup torches, asking about Nicholas Negroponte, who has suggested a wind-up laptop.

Negroponte is behind the One Laptop per Child concept, which is well advanced in its planning. Every country that agrees to participate will purchase cheap, robust laptops for every schoolchild. They can be run by being windup or by solar power. I remembered reading an article about the initiative on the BBC web site, but had not connected Negroponte's name with the idea. At present the price is $176 but he wants to get the price down to $100 if possible. A great deal of thought has gone into it: for example, the laptops are bright green, so stolen ones carried by adults are obvious. Manufacture will start soon, apparently.

Negroponte filed in 2004, apparently only in the USA, for a patent for a Low Cost Portable Computing Device.

18 September 2007

Windup torches

There are an increasing number of devices which are powered by renewable sources. For example, a mobile phone which is recharged by leaving it in sunlight.

There is also the good old windup idea, where the owner winds away. Contrary to popular belief, Trevor Baylis' GB 2262324 for the windup radio (illustrated here)

Windup radio patent drawing

 which was published in 1993, was not the first such device. It was not granted protection, either.

I noticed the other day that my little windup torch, where a handle unfolds from the casing and is twisted a few times, had some information on it:

JML8964

USA CHINA HKG

DES. PAT. 29/245,965

2005301472764 0502775.0

As it had no manufacturer's name (or trade mark) on it I was curious to know more. "Des. Pat." means that it has a Design Patent, the American term for a registered design for its looks. The "29" suggested to me that it was a filing rather than a publication number.

My usual standby Espacenet did not help with either 29/245965 or 245965. I then tried the official US database and its Quick Search format within the Issued Patents gave the right one at the top of the list of entries with 245965 in it. It's US D536813, "Hand crank powered LED flashlight", by a private Hong Kong inventor. It was published in February 2007.

The Google Advanced Patent Search database, which relies on scanned documents, also found it, as the only hit for 29/245965. Unlike the official database, which gives it as a TIFF file, Google provides a PDF version

The other numbers ? 20053 in relation to Chinese numbers means a design applied for in 2005, while I am pretty confident that the last number is a Hong Kong number. It sounds as if the three sets of numbers are in the same order as the geographical names given. All this may sound like musings for nerds. Maybe it is, but this is a good example of a business problem where definitive information can be provided to solve a problem.

No idea about JML8964, that could be the manufacturer's private number.