These young people aren’t making apps or selling start-ups, they’re innovating to help the world
Gecko Traxx might seem like a simple concept, but its inventors have big plans to make the outdoors more accessible. (ABC News: Andrew Altree-Williams)
When Huy Nguyen heads to the beach in his wheelchair, the sand is no longer a barrier. He simply pulls out prototype clip-on tracks for his wheelchair and pushes himself to the water’s edge.
“It’s given me choice and control of accessing the beach where I want to without needing to rely on someone else, which is a huge difference for me,” he said.
Mr Nguyen contracted polio when he was just 18 months old in Vietnam. His company Enable Development helps expand opportunities for people with disability and it runs programs to help students learn about disability.
More than anything, he cherishes his independence and up to now, it ended when he went to the beach.
“I always had to wait for someone. Always depending on someone,” he said.
“It’s a huge game changer. Instead of being reliant on someone. Or being restricted to certain places.”
Mr Nguyen, 34, and his business partner Ryan Tilley, 22, spent two years developing the lightweight wheelchair tracks they call Gecko Traxx.
“A lot of people have said ‘why hasn’t this been done before?’ It’s something we think is a very simple solution,” Mr Tilley said.
The two met when Mr Tilley was studying mechanical engineering and industrial design at university.
Ryan Tilley met Huy Nguyen while studying mechanical engineering and industrial design. (ABC News: Andrew Altree-Williams)
The Gecko Traxx snap onto wheelchairs to make it easier for them to roll over sand. (ABC News: Andrew Altree-Williams)
The key to their invention is the design that allows the track to flatten out at the bottom, but at the top of the wheel it becomes thin again.
That’s crucial because it doesn’t impede the wheelchair user who needs to push the chair forward. Moving over sand still takes a solid push, but the wheels do not get bogged down.
“Everything’s going to take effort but this actually allows me to actually do it,” Mr Nguyen said.
“It was almost impossible before that.”
Gecko Traxx might seem like a simple concept, but what is allows those who use wheelchairs to overcome is quite great.
The invention has been selected for this year’s Young Social Pioneers program.
It’s a mentorship-type program run by the Foundation for Young Australians and the whole point of it is to help pioneers “respond to some of the most pressing social and environmental challenges of our time”.
These innovators are building more than just another app.
It’s about providing a way to access nature
The beauty of Gecko Traxx, the partners say, is that once you can get a wheelchair over sand, you can get it over pretty much any terrain. And they’re thinking big.
“The larger vision is to create a brand and a company … that focusses on enabling people with limited mobility to access the natural environment,” Mr Tilley said.
Huy Nguyen and business partner Ryan Tilley with their invention Gecko Traxx. (ABC News: Andrew Altree-Williams)
Gecko Traxx was one of seven Young Social Pioneer participants selected to receive $10,000 in seed money and the business partners said the money would make a huge difference.
Right now, their prototypes are made on 3D printers, but they want to scale up production and hope to be able to start selling their tracks for about $350 a pair.
Support for innovators going solo
The Young Social Pioneers program:
- 450 applicants who must be between 18 to 29 years old
- 45 applicants are selected for an immersive incubator program to jump start business and initiatives making a social impact
- Seven young innovators received $10,000 in seed money after a Foundation for Young Australians pitch event
For some program participants, it’s not about the money. The real prize is the support, mentorship, and networking that is vital when you are running your own business.
“Sometimes I think ‘am I doing the right thing?’,” Mana Ohori said.
“It’s good to have people doing the same thing outside, and they’re doing [it] by themselves as well.”
Ms Ohori, 23, was studying material science and engineering when she started an internship at a jewellery manufacturing company.
Mana Ohori makes jewellery in her Sydney studio using diamonds grown in US laboratories. (ABC News: Penny Timms)
She became fascinated with lab-grown, or synthetic, diamonds.
The gems are made by applying microwaves to hydrogen and methane on a tiny slice of a diamond, called the seed.
“You’re literally growing [a diamond] layer-by-layer,” Ms Ohori said.
“Then it’s turning exactly the same way as a natural diamond.
“Because it’s not coming from mining, it has less impact on the environment.
“And also, [they] have no blood diamond issues.”
An option for customers ‘conscious about the environment’
Ms Ohori started a business called Diamonds From The Sky.
The lab-grown diamonds are not produced in Australia, so Ms Ohori custom orders them from the US, dictating the size and cut to complete designs for her clients.
Mana Ohori works on her jewellery pieces featuring diamonds grown in laboratories. (ABC News: Penny Timms)
She fits the diamonds to pieces she makes in her small studio in Sydney.
“Most of my customers are … probably more conscious about the environment,” she said.
“A lot of them probably younger generation.”
The process has another significant environmental benefit. Methane gas is extracted from the atmosphere to grow the diamonds in the lab and it’s a major greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
“Methane is actually contributing more than CO2 in terms of climate change,” Ms Ohori said.
“My … goal is to get the methane out of the air … and then turn [it] into diamonds.”
On top of all that, lab-grown diamonds are about 30-40 per cent cheaper than the mined variety.
“You can spend the same money and you can get a bigger stone,” Ms Ohori said.
‘Driving a values revolution’
In the past nine years, the YSP program has supported nearly 300 businesses and initiatives. Not all have succeeded, but some have thrived.
Businesses that got their start in the program include Hireup, an online platform for people with disability to find, hire and manage support workers.
Fixtysix Creations, which works in schools to help teach students about entrepreneurship, also received a vital boost from the program.
“Our responsibility to these young people is to harness, focus and amplify their ideas,” Foundation for Young Australians chief Jan Owen said.
“Each of these young people are indicative of a generation driving a values revolution, working with and within systems to create practical, lasting change.”
Ms Ohori is already on her way. So far, word of mouth has helped attract enough customers to get her business off the ground and she’s already thinking of the day when she can stop ordering diamonds from overseas and grow them herself.
“To be honest, I think my final goal is to create a laboratory here in Australia and grow diamonds here,” she said.