TERRY PRONE: Road to wealth is paved with good inventions for young entrepreneurs

THEY came into the big room, some of them dry-mouthed with terror, some of them sunny with positive expectations.

A few came in on their own, others brought colleagues. Two wore the livery of the new company they planned to establish, three sported Ribena-coloured hair, which turned out to be a leftover from a charity unrelated to their company, and one of them looked, for a bizarre split second, as if she was the custodian of a stiff but light corpse she was carrying by the legs.

The light stiff corpse turned out to be a department store mannequin, who got screwed into the ground by one leg, leaving the other extended. Clare Murphy, who either owned or had borrowed the mannequin, slid what looked like a broad black garter over the foot of the free leg, ran it to thigh level, then patted the mannequin’s short skirt down over what she announced as The Leggit.

The Leggit had emerged from a moment of social irritation. Its inventor, on a night out, found her freedom being greatly hampered by her handbag. She had to keep an eye on it or keep it with her, and dancing while wearing a shoulder-strapped bag can be problematic.

So she wondered about the possibility of creating something that would be worn under clothing into which could be stashed mobile phone, money and maybe a camera (you know yourself, on any night out, you need the camera to record what happens for Facebook purposes).

Clare had developed a neoprene pouch which looked quite cool around the skinny pale plastic thigh of the mannequin. She seemed unfazed by the fact that not all of the adolescents at whom this accessory would be aimed would own quite such skinny thighs.

The men present looked baffled but intrigued by the possibilities of a young woman on a night out reaching casually under her skirt and producing a stash of cash. Even more impelling was the prospect of socialising with young women whose thighs might at any moment let loose with a great ring tone.

And, while everybody present studiously avoided phrases like “the bottom line,” the bottom line was that this young woman had scoped out the competition for her potential product (one company in America sells a version, but it has only one slot in it, thereby limiting how much of what you need on a night out you can transport at thigh level). Clearly she believed that, once her product was on the market, it would be a winner, hands down. Or hands up, under her own skirt, if the wearer wanted to retrieve her mobile phone to take a call from her father wanting to know if it was time to collect her in the car.

Clare was one of last week’s 18 finalists in the Young Entrepreneur Programme, an initiative of the Institute of Technology, Tralee, Shannon Development and Tweak.com, designed to get entrepreneurship going as early in life as possible. Hundreds of competitors at second and third level entered, going through an elaborate process of mentoring provided by already successful entrepreneurs before the finalists were subjected to a testing day of presentation to the judges: Vincent Lynch, chief executive communications manager with the Kerry Group, Pat O’Sullivan Green, a director of Sterling Strategic Value Ltd, Jerry Kennelly, chief executive of Tweak.com, and me.

The business ideas varied between owning your own pig while having it reared in an allotment until it was time to kill and eat your pet; football socks that would never end up prolapsed around the ankles (which, we learned, is a constantly irritating factor affecting sports people), encasing your make-up compact in a rubber protector; and cleaning your silverware quickly, simply and cheaply with a product understandably called Dazzle.

You could save yourself money using Lauren O’Halloran’s “Stand by-bye,” a little gadget that would turn off electric items left on standby after a particular length of time or save yourself hassle by attaching Lonán Collins’ beautifully crafted Eazi-Paint, a self-levelling paint can holder, to your ladder.

The young entrepreneurs came in prepared to be asked precisely the same questions they’d be asked if they had pitched up in front of venture capitalists seeking investment. The preferred manufacturing location was China, and each of the contestants who planned to produce a gizmo had already talked to the relevant person in the relevant Chinese factory.

In fact, they had a much tougher time than if they’d been in front of venture capitalists. Jerry Kennelly every now and then seemed to disengage and pay more attention to his iPad than to the young entrepreneur currently being interrogated. Except that each time he did it, it emerged that he’d been doing research, and was able to come up with challenges for which they could never have been prepared.

He didn’t quite tell them that a version of their service or product was already on the market, provided out of Singapore by a company using the free labour of captive hamsters, but he came close.

Some of the judges courted digestive disaster by eating the free samples some of the young entrepreneurs brought with them, including a snack bar for pregnant women, fortified with folic acid, designed to obviate the need on the part of mothers-to-be to swallow tablets every day for nine months. One judge even ate the horse treats branded by their maker, Emma Browne as “Herby Horse”.

SHE promised they would do him no harm. So far, he seems OK, although he was on his honeymoon when the awards were presented at the end of the week, so we couldn’t run a complete health check on him. He missed a great show, though, presented by TV3’s Colette Fitzpatrick and Newstalk’s George Hook.

Interestingly, the spark for many of the entrepreneurial ideas came from within families. Danny Mac Piarais, for example, noticed that his mother and grandmothers wasted a lot of time searching for their lost glasses and decided a good business lay in solving their problem. He developed a small locator to stick on spectacles, with a button which could be affixed to a fridge, and when pressed, would make the glasses beep at them.

Marie Ní Mhairtín, similarly, was bothered by the fact that her farmer father became ill after spraying herbicide on his lands from a tractor. The process, she figured, endangered farmers because it put them too closely in contact with the chemicals being dispersed. She developed a piece of equipment for fitment to a tractor which would allow the farmer total control from within the cab, where he would be much better protected against the chemicals.

The elegance and practical utility of the fully engineered prototype led to Marie winning the top award. With luck, that in turn may open a market for a clearly necessary product.

Last week’s event saw successful entrepreneurs at third, second and even primary school level. Those involved will have been inoculated against the stressful messages emerging at the weekend from Professor Morgan Kelly because we have seen the future. And it works.


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