Saturday, 8 July 2017

(A Bit of) Inspirefest 2017

I finished work as a Teaching Assistant at CTYI at 12 pm yesterday and rushed off to catch the last quarter of Inspirefest, the conference I always tell people is the best I've been to for its selection of unusual speakers, smooth running, treatment of speakers and overall amazing vibes.

This year, I had to miss most of it because I had an actual job, but here are some snippets of what I did see. 

HeroRATs/APOPO (Bart Weetjens)

Bart Weetjens blew my mind, and was to me the best talk of the conference. I'll get to the point: he successfully trains rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis. Wat. 

He said as a kid he used to breed rats and sell them to pet shops, and later when he came to Africa (he's Dutch) and saw farmers who'd had to abandon their land because of land mines and live in refugee camps, he had an idea to fix it. 

He trained giant African pouched rats to detect landmines using Pavlovian conditioning, and since they're so light they can safely detect the mines (humans die doing it). Rats can also do it much faster. The rats have found and destroyed 105,971 landmines and unexploded weapons and freed up over 21 million metres squared of land that people can now live and work on. 

As if that weren't cool enough, he's also trained rats to detect tuberculosis, which can act as an opportunistic infection on people with AIDS and is the world's leading cause of death from infectious disease (according to the APOPO website). The rats can, he said, screen up to 40 samples in seven minutes, and have led to the diagnosis of thousands of additional cases that previously were not caught in hospitals.


And it's just so unique and original -- so many people think rats are gross and useless, but look at this amazing use they're being put to! I just think this guy is incredible. I'd read about HeroRATs before but never had any idea they were this cool. Dayum. Especially for a girl mad into public health, it was ... quite the experience. And to make me even happier, they've published a bunch of scientific papers about it that I can now go read!

Here's a quote from one (Ellis, Mulder, Valverde, Poling, Edwards (2017) Reproducibility of African giant pouched rats detecting Mycobacterium tuberculosis, BMC Infectious Diseases): "A trained rat can evaluate as many samples in 20 min as a lab technician using convention light microscopy can do in four days", and I also like the conservatism immediately following it: "and the rats are more sensitive, although their specificity is somewhat lower", with both sensitive and specificity linking to references. That particular study does have a small sample size (22 rats), so it's good they mention that, but damn this is so cool. Also, each rat checked each sample. 


(Okay, so maybe I'm fangirling a little...)

Sugru (Jane Ní Dulchaointigh)

I'd seen Sugru, the mouldable glue for fixers, sold in the Science Gallery and knew it was invented by an Irish person, but had no idea how long and difficult the process had been or how popular Sugru had become. 

Jane started working on Sugru in 2003 while doing an MA in Product Design. Over the next fourteen years, she brought on silicone scientists and patent lawyers and experimented a lot to get the right material. They got a grant to start and scraped by until they got a little investment and could sell their first product. 

They spent a month making a thousand packs of silicone and then they sold out online in six hours, which definitely attracted the interest of investors. Another 2000 sold out in ten hours of preorders, and now they had a huge backlog to make thanks to a feature in Wired after the Daily Telegraph reviewer she sent it to wrote a 2010 article titled "Sugru: Is this the best thing since Sellotape?". Sugru has done pretty well from there -- as the Sugru website story says, it appeared alongside the iPad in Time magazine's list of the 50 Best Inventions of 2010, and Jane told us at Inspirefest that it now has 2 million users and a very enthusiastic and creative fanbase.

Izzy Wheels

I'd been quite looking forward to the talk by Izzy and Ailbhe, founders of Izzy Wheels, who won Accenture's Leaders of Tomorrow award as well as a host of other things, and whom I constantly see mentioned on Twitter. The talk (well, investment pitch is what it literally was) was very good, and their achievements are impressive (like being featured on Instagram's official story and exposed to 250 million users), but I was dismayed to see that it was more Ailbhe's than Izzy's. 

Izzy has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair and I'd thought it was really cool that she used her experience of disability to design these decorative wheels for wheelchairs. Unfortunately, Ailbhe did the entire 10-20 minute talk and Izzy only spoke for less than a minute after the official talk. As well as that, on their Team page they had four people and Ailbhe was listed as Founder while Izzy was Co-Founder and Brand Ambassador, showing it's more Ailbhe's project. Seeing Ailbhe talk while Izzy spun around in her wheelchair just was not an empowering experience, especially when she said things like disabled people want to be fashionable too. I think that would have been a lot more powerful coming from an actual disabled person. 

AIlbhe seems cool too and is a very good speaker and of course she has the right to start a company like this and talk about it, but it just would have been nice to see the two sisters who were on stage together share the time equally.

So, good talk, it's a cool company that seems to be doing really well, but more #ownvoices please! 

Soapbox Labs

Soapbox Labs develops voice technology for third-party apps and devices of all kinds that actually work for kids' voices in noisy, realistic environments. There's science behind it. It's cool. 


I got to meet some of my pals from Inspirefest last year and other events, like Vanessa:

I met Kelly Hoey again and she signed one of her books for me then gave me six of them and told me to give them away to any college student that found me:

CTYI saw and Tweeted Kelly's tweet about me which was kinda weird...good thing I wasn't skiving off work to go to Inspirefest ...

Other cool people I bumped into again included Monica Parker from Hatch Analytics, Elaine Burke from Silicon Republic, blogger and advocate Sinéad Burke, Gizmodo CEO Raju Narisetti, Nilofer Merchant (very cool name and glittery skirt, also apparently the "Jane Bond of Innovation" and photographer Darragh Doyle. I saw returning speakers Anne Ravanona (CEO, Global InvestHer) and Shelly Porges (many things but coolest to me, once Senior Advisor to Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State).

I was sad to miss so many amazing people like Marcus Weldon (President of Bell Labs, Nokia corporate CTO), Dr France A Cordova (Director of National Science Foundation and former Chief Scientist @ NASA), Matt Flannery (co-founder of microlending giant Kiva), Brenda Romero (games developer and incredible speaker) and .... (look, just read the Inspirefest speakers page, they have a lot of amazing speakers) because of work -- hopefully some of them will come back again next year so I can ambush them in the VIP lounge watch their talks.

In the end, I saw very little of Inspirefest because I had to go to work, but what I did see was pretty amazing.

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