Bringing connectivity to poor remote communities via radio waves leads to award

20 October 2010

Imagine an impoverished village way out in a remote area beyond broadband infrastructure or even phone lines, where children are being targeted to receive low-cost computers for education by well-meaning philanthropic programmes.

Then imagine those laptop computers sitting in classrooms without connections… rendered almost totally useless for the very people they are meant to help.

That's the frustrating reality that OneBeep, a winner in this year's University of Auckland Spark $100K Challenge, took onboard to tackle, coming up with an inexpensive and robust method of sending educational content to laptops via radio waves.

Initiated by five undergraduates, OneBeep's software can be used to convert educational data files to audio, which can then be sent via radio waves. These waves can be received on any cheap AM/FM radio, which passes the information onto the laptop.

The file is then converted back to its original form, once it has been received on the children's laptops, ready to be viewed. As every village has AM radios, OneBeep has developed a low-cost way of beaming out daily lessons, health material and other important information over long distances to millions of children.

Spark Steering Committee chair Geoff Whitcher says poor communities are the target of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and the Intel Classmate PC programmes, which are major international programmes designed to get low-cost computers into impoverished communities.

"These very worthwhile initiatives have deployed a combined 2.6 million laptops to remote communities around the globe," he says.

"There are plans to deploy 30 million more in the next five years. OneBeep has developed a unique way of making these laptops viable and successful in poor communities."

OneBeep, which took 3rd place out of 65 entrants in this year's global Imagine Cup in Poland, has won three months' incubation at The ICEHOUSE, alongside equal third-place-getter GI Joes.

A world-leading inorganic composite material developed by a University of Auckland research team that promises to revolutionise environment purification of air and water has won this year's top award in the Challenge.

PhotoPURE – developed by a group of PhD students and their supervisor Professor Wei Gao – has already excited health circles with its novel and advanced blend of nanoscience and photocatalytic technology that brings both higher effectiveness and lower cost.

The new technology, a green process that creates no secondary contaminants or other harmful by-products, means environmental impurification can be eradicated through the use of light energy.

Due to its unique "nanoarchitecture", PhotoPURE is more efficient and provides a longer-lasting purifying effect, the developers say. With its low energy consumption, long life-time and minimal maintenance requirements, PhotoPURE is set to radically reduce purification costs whilst offering improved air and water quality.

The company has won $20,000 in seed finance and six months' residence at business incubator The ICEHOUSE.

This year's runner-up Healthy Memory Company, which aims to reduce memory loss in baby-boomers, won $10,000 seed money and three months' residence at The ICEHOUSE. GI Joes has developed a medical device for diagnosing gastric problems through the electrical activity of the stomach.

Spark, in its eighth year, encourages a spirit of innovation and culture of enterprise at The University of Auckland, and has already fostered the establishment of 65 start-up ventures which have created more than 250 jobs and sell products in 22 countries, Mr Whitcher says. This year has seen 286 entries whittled down to 65 semi-finalists and then 12 finalists.

Spark chief executive Graeme Fielder says selecting the winner this year has not been an easy feat. "The entries have been extremely diverse, matched with strong teams with ideas that have introduced new medical devices, food products, purification and communication technologies, or seek to end poverty or encourage fair trade.

"In addition to our next generation of entrepreneurs, Spark this year in particular has stimulated a wave of individual transformations.

"This includes graduates taking entrepreneurial mindsets to high profile corporate positions, scientists and engineers obtaining an appreciation of the path of commercialisation and importance of intellectual property, and graduates becoming social pioneers or continuing business education at top US business schools."