Niall Kent and Alessia D'Onofrio, both post-doc researchers at University College London, have won the inaugural Launchpad competition organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering

Novel bone substitute voted best idea in youth start-up prize

New cheaper and more effective synthetic material designed to replace bone in dental surgeries has won the inaugural £15,000 JC Gammond Award aiming to help young entrepreneurs to start a career.

The Aerograft concept, developed by 25-year old Niall Kent, a post-doc researcher at University College London, and Alessia D’Onofrio from Queen Mary University, was chosen from three finalists by a panel of judges in a live voting event following a pitching session.

"It's fantastic! We are very pleased to have won," said Naill Kent after receiving the award from the Duke of York. "We were confident that we have a good idea but we were not expecting it. The competition in the final was very tough, the other entrants were excellent."

In addition to the financial award, the winning team, together with the two other finalists of the Launchpad competition, will join the Royal Academy of Engineering’s (RAEng) Enterprise Hub where they will receive expert guidance to get their business off the ground.

“We have existing programmes under the banner of our Enterprise Hub Initiative, which basically harnesses all the expertise and experiences in our network. But most of these programmes are focused on people at the post-doctoral level,” said Hayaatun Sillem, director for Programmes and Fellowships at the RAEng who helped set up the Launchpad competition.

“We felt there was a real need for a competition to focus on the younger age group, the 16 to 25 year-olds, as we believe there are many fantastic technology ideas and a lot of potential among the young people.”

Sillem said the judging panel faced a difficult task to select the most perspective proposals from the 40 submissions and found it almost impossible to pick the final three.

“At some point we weren’t sure whether to stick to our original idea of three finalists and one winner or whether to embrace a wider group, such was the quality of the submissions,” Sillem said. “But these people want to succeed in business so they have to be able to compete, so we stuck to our guns and picked only one winner.”

In the final vote, the judging panel, led by the chairman of the RAEng’s Enterprise Committee Ian Shott, surprisingly agreed on the idea with the best potential making Aerograft a clear winner.

Focusing on a field where little innovation has been achieved over the past 50 years, Aerograft hopes its product could help nearly 600,000 patients undergoing dental surgery around the world each year – of which a tenth may fail due to improper bone quality.

In a safe distance behind the winning team, but a close second and third, came the Radial Genomics system for more accurate breast cancer diagnoses based on DNA scanning and an infrared flame detector for domestic use developed by a start-up called SinclairFire.

In addition, two entrants were awarded the ’Highly commended’ status by the judges – a prototype domestic 3D printer that can be built from a kit developed by 18-year-old Adeel Ali and Jennie Morley’s project, which is designed to help coffee farmers get more out of the global coffee business by supplying coffee roasting units and unprocessed coffee beans directly to consumers.

“The most important thing the contestants will get is the comprehensive pro bono support package,” Sillem said. “We can get them IP lawyers, we can get them accountants, we can get them into a very, very powerful network of people who have hands-on experience in growing companies.”

Niall Kent confirmed the expert know-how and guidance may prove more vital for his company's future success than the financial award. "We are especially looking forward to the mentoring being offered by experts at the academy with vast business experience and also interacting with the Enterprise Hub at the academy. We definitely feel that participating in the competition will help us greatly in the future," he said. 

"We ultimately want to release a product and be successful. One special moment will be the first use in a patient and seeing how what we have developed is helping them. We aim to achieve a CE Mark within the next two to three years and so anticipate launching a product after this. We also want to exploit this product as a platform technology for other medical fields."

The Duke of York, known for his support of young entrepreneurs, commented: “If we are to be a prosperous and successful nation we have to invest in young people and young people’s ideas. One of the best ways to do this is to challenge them to come up with solutions to the problems that most affect them.

“Engineering is one of the widest market spheres, yet one of the least understood. We can change that by encouraging young people to deliver innovative ideas. The key is giving them the support and mentoring that they need, and the Launchpad competition delivers exactly that.”

The RAEng hopes to launch the next round of the Launchpad competition early next year and believes the event has the potential to grow and bring more exciting and innovative technology ideas to life.

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