The Every Second Counts forum, hosted by The Guardian and sponsored by Rolex, took place this weekend. Attended by entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists aged 20 to 30, the conference featured keynote speeches from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, science and technology research fellow at UCL. But perhaps most importantly, it served as a showcase for the Rolex Laureates, five young entrepreneurs who have leveraged existing technology and resources in new ways, to create impactful solutions to real-world issues.
“It’s not about having one idea when you’re young and achieving it,” says journalist Samira Ahmed, who compered the day-long event at Kings Place in London. “It’s about having lots of ideas, and keeping that childlike passion over the years.”
Rolex’s rising stars
Neeti Kailas was the first Rolex Laureate to take to the stage and unveil a device of her own design, which enables mass screening of hearing loss at birth, something which is often cost-prohibitive in India. While the technology may be complex, the device itself is easy to use in crowded, noisy environments such as small clinics or maternity centres, highly boosting the chances of successful screening and a significantly faster response to help children with hearing loss get the treatment and education that they need.
Olivier Nsengimana is on a mission to save the endangered grey crowned crane of Rwanda. This particular bird is a symbol of wealth, and as such people will pay highly for them, encouraging poaching as a viable source of income for families living in poverty. Olivier’s approach was to tackle the needs of local communities and look at providing ways to make a living without poaching or cutting down forests. “If you only focus on one aspect of a problem,” he says, “you might not find a sustainable solution.”
Italian geologist and explorer Francesco Sauro used his speech to illuminate a shadowy, underground world for audience members. “Caves are islands within Islands from an ecological point of view,” he says, asserting that they hold a wealth of evolutionary secrets which could help us understand where we come from in an unprecedented way.
While studying computer science in Cameroon, Arthur Zang’s curiosity about the use of tech in the medical field led to him spending more and more time in hospitals, where he discovered that there are only 50 cardiologists in the country, serving upwards of 19 million people. He was inspired to create the Cardio Pad, the first portable device of its kind, which can be used to diagnose heart conditions at any location, saving the time and money it would take to transport a patient to a hospital. The Cardio Pad has since received a $37,000 grant from the President of Cameroon.
The final Laureate speaker was Hosam Zowawi, whose business idea could transform the healthcare industry by helping to end antibiotic resistance and superbugs, which he describes as “the greatest threat to human health today”, even more so than Ebola. “Things like strep throat, or a scratched knee, could once again prove fatal,” he says. The current diagnosis of superbugs can take up to 5 days, by which time it is often too late to prescribe an effective treatment. Rapid Superbug comprises the first network of collaborative hospitals, enabling identification of up to 200 superbugs in less than 5 hours, at a third of the current cost. Hosam believes that by fostering communication and collaboration between medical institutions, it will be possible to put the cost of antibiotic resistance ($8.4 billion in the US alone) to better use.
Desire to aspire
“The desire to aspire” is something that Maggie Aderin-Pocock tries to instil in students when she visits schools to talk about pursuing a career in science. Maggie herself was dyslexic and therefore struggled at school, but soon found that she had a head for numbers. This discovery, combined with her excitement at the moon landings and subsequent passion for space, changed all that. “When you have something like that driving you on, you find ways around [these obstacles],” she says.
Overcoming self-doubt is a lifelong battle, as Maggie has found. When she was invited to the World Economic Forum, she was convinced that she had nothing to contribute. But she soon realised that these vast, various committees weren’t talking to each other. So she approached the humanitarian aid team, and asked what kind of images taken from space would help them to coordinate their relief efforts. By bringing together people from different disciplines, she was able to make contributions that had the potential to change people’s lives.
Take more risks
Maggie was astounded when Kirsty Wark asked her during an interview whether the recent Rosetta space mission should be considered a failure, as the Philae didn’t land perfectly. She views the entire endeavour as a madcap, hairbrained scheme of the absolute highest order: “The whole Rosetta mission was a challenge, it was a risk, and I think we should take more calculated risks.”
She strongly believes that even when a mission doesn’t go 100% to plan, it can be a valuable enterprise. She cites the failed Beagle 2 mission as a prime example of this; although that project itself was generally dismissed as a disaster, much of the technology involved has since been put to important use, including a spectrometer which is now utilised for diagnosing TB. “Out of failure comes success,” she says. “Out of failure comes learning.”
War is no different. Maggie pointed out all of the various innovations in science and engineering that came about as a direct result of necessity in times of conflict, which made the Rosetta mission even more poignant. What could be a more appropriate epitaph to the Armistice, on its 100th anniversary, than Europe working together to achieve something that had never been done before?
Constellations of talent
The final on-stage chat between Tim and Maggie, chaired by John Mulholland of The Observer, kept coming back to one of the forum’s unifying themes: collaboration. “If you got all the people who worked on Rosetta together, they’d fill a stadium,” Maggie says, to which Tim quickly adds: “We need different constellations of talent out there.”
“Don’t spend all your time trying to convince people to get on board,” says Tim. “There will be people out there who are excited about what you’re doing. Work with them.” One of the more surprising pieces of advice from Maggie’s session was “don’t be afraid of commercialisation”, which she was keen to justify; “In order to do good, you might have to put business behind it… but you have to be very careful about who you link up with. More and more scientists are having to make this moral decision, as there is less and less public funding available for blue sky research.”
If there is one line that encapsulates everything that made Every Second Counts so memorable, it is from Maggie. “I think sometimes people place limits on aspiration, to protect them from disappointment,” she told me after her seminar. “I say throw that away, and reach for the stars.”