Patch helping innovative teenagers plot the path to a brighter future

Tom McCarthy’s ‘Hogwarts for teenagers’ focused on fostering the best ideas of the next generation

Patch participants Sam Enright and Dylan Cuskelly in discussion with mentor and serial entrepreneur, Brian Caulfield. in  Dogpatch Labs.

Patch participants Sam Enright and Dylan Cuskelly in discussion with mentor and serial entrepreneur, Brian Caulfield. in Dogpatch Labs.

 

When you hear the word “accelerator” you think of hothoused young companies, furiously working away on their products and services to get them to a point where they can be a commercial entity and win millions in funding. The accelerator is only the starting point on the journey; the ultimate goal is to build a company that will become the next Stripe, Intercom or Google.

But for Patch, the point isn’t to build a company; rather, it is to develop ideas, to build the future. And the other difference? It is aimed at teenagers, so it’s designed to be pressure-free.

Now in its second year, Patch is the brainchild of 20-year-old Tom McCarthy. The project grew out of a series of “20 under 20” events McCarthy organised at Dogpatch Labs in Dublin in 2015 and 2016.

But the six-week programme it has become now first came to life in 2019, when McCarthy was named winner of the Pioneer tournament with his plan for a “Hogwarts for Irish teenagers” interested in technology, science and engineering.

The story was an interesting one: he was the first Irish person to win the programme, which was founded by Israeli entrepreneur Daniel Gross in 2018 as an online tournament that invests in “ambitious people working on interesting projects”.

For Pioneer, the premise is simple. They could be projects in any field, from physics research to journalism and the arts, and the key goal was to convince other participants that it is worth backing.

McCarthy’s “Hogwarts for teenagers” was Patch. The name came from a brainstorming session with his mother; although it ended up linked to Dogpatch Labs in Dublin, it wasn’t a deliberate homage.

The project’s win netted him $7,000 (€6,198) in funding, a round trip to Silicon Valley and the mentorship of experts that include Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison, Longevity Fund founder Laura Deming and US economist Tyler Cowen, as well as access to the network of previous Pioneer winners. That, he said, was a key thing for him, and it seems something that could be repeated with Patch.

“I’m trying to find a place to help talented and high-potential young people fulfil their potential – the future builders, entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists. Think of the next generation of Collison brothers, Musks, Marie Curies, Grace Hoppers, ” said McCarthy.

“For me, and for many others, you grew up building projects in Ireland and other places as well but you’re quite limited by where you grew up in terms of who else shares your interests and who you can work with . When you go on to college and jobs after that, it’s much easier to find your tribe. But as a teenager if you’re someone who wants to work on things and build things, do science projects, hack on computers or just talk about interesting projects, it’s very hard to find people who are like you.”

Fusion reactor

Finding people like McCarthy might be difficult. At 13 years of age he decided to build a nuclear fusion reactor in his back garden, planning to complete it within five to six months and break a world record. Instead, it took him a couple of years, and is currently in his father’s studio in Co Mayo.

Patch is looking for future potential, the people who could go on to be great entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers. It’s not an easy task.

“That’s opaque. It’s not immediately clear; if you could pick out the future Bill Gates in the population, everybody would be doing it and investing early on,” said McCarthy.

“We screen for young people who have sort of shown an inclination or are showing interest and ambition already through, say, doing projects in Coderdojo in the BT Young Scientist and Scifest, and are doing well at those as well. And also people who are developing skills and showing a great ability to teach themselves and to move forward, get beyond obstacles in some sense, just embody perseverance and interest.”

Patch has already attracted some high-quality talent. Last year’s cohort included agritech company CropSafe, which went on to be named as one of the 21 companies taking part in Propel NI for 2020, a six-month-long pre-accelerator for Northern Ireland based companies. That brought £15,000 in funding, and further access to expertise, and the company is now set to launch

CropSafe uses a combination of satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to detect contamination and disease in farmers’ crops, monitoring yield health, soil temperature, sensor data and any other unusual anomalies that may show up. CropSafe allows farmers to create simple crop health alerts based on satellite and weather data, with actionable insights available in 10 seconds.

“We learned the importance of building technology fast, testing it with our users and that pivoting your product is still progress,” said Micheál McLaughlin.

“Patch was brilliant. The calibre of mentors, speakers and other participants has been excellent. You make some great friends and have some really interesting conversations. I’ve learned a lot personally and also for our start-up, CropSafe. Patch has helped open my mind to the number of opportunities that are actually available in Ireland and beyond.”

Meanwhile, Manal Mukhtar and her carpooling startup MLN, joined Patch and with the help of the programme’s mentors, built its first product and organised a pilot with a 2,600 employee consultancy firm.

It wasn’t all about start-ups last year though. Former BT Young Scientist winner and current biochemist in training Diana Bura started Wunder Engine with the team she met at Patch. The group took the six weeks to create a tool to 3D print creations from Minecraft, enabling virtual builders to hold their creations in their own hands.

“The most important things I learned during Patch was the value of good communication between each other, not only for efficient group work but also for stirring inspiration in others. Our idea started from a chat we were having after dinner in Dogpatch. Without that community and support network, we never would’ve come up with that project,” said Bura.

Agritech project

The group continued working on Wunder Engine for a few months afterwards, pausing the project at the start of the academic year.

“Patch helped put me in contact with some really cool people that are now my friends and with whom I still have regular chats and meet ups with. I got to work on a really fun project over the summer and as I was the one in my group that got to pitch the idea on the final day of the programme, I also greatly improved my communication skills and now have a lot more connections with valuable and new people that I could work with in the future.”

UCD student Ciarán Flanagan worked on an agritech project during his time at Patch. Dubbed Drovine, it used drones to monitor livestock more efficiently.

“I developed a prototype software platform that allowed for field mapping and the generation of flight paths for the drone. We also ran some test flights during this trial period,” he said.

“Patch encapsulated the startup and entrepreneurial mindset. Although there was a lot of work involved it was an incredibly enjoyable experience. Patch was a brilliant opportunity to meet like-minded individuals from around the country who share the same passion and interest in STEM as I do.”

The computer science student now runs his own software consultancy with a number of clients in Ireland and abroad.

The programme seems to be particularly appealing to participants in the BT event. Last year’s winner Adam Kelly, who won the science competition with a quantum computing project, used his time at Patch to build three separate prototypes with his team, from interactive textbooks to facial recognition systems.

Like last year, this year’s programme will take place over six weeks in the summer. But the 2020 applications are now open to European entries, with up to 20 per cent of the projects expected to be from elsewhere in Europe.

Some other things have been refined too. The eligible age group has been narrowed to 16 to 19 years old, instead of 21. This year’s applications will close on June 14th, with the programme getting underway from July 8th.

“We ask for people to apply with ideas that they’d like to work on over the summer. It doesn’t have to be a startup or business,” said McCarthy. “That idea may change, we understand that.”

Like almost every other event in recent months, the coronavirus pandemic has forced McCarthy to make some changes to how the project is run. While last year’s programme would have seen the participants huddle together and thrash out ideas, the Covid-19 outbreak and necessary social distancing has forced a different approach. The sessions this year will be remote, although the accelerator may resume its place in Dogpatch if it is safe to do so.

Philanthropically funded

It doesn’t have a financial cost for the participants either. Those who do form business ideas from the six week programme won’t find a portion of their company’s equity handed over to Patch at the end of the six weeks; the programme is philanthropically funded, through some of its mentors and other sources of funding.

A big part of Patch’s appeal is the access to experts – founders, entrepreneurs and investors – and it has attracted some heavy-hitters in the industry.

Among those who have signed on to take part are Ray Nolan, who founded Hostelworld and Xsellco; Manna founder and one-time chief executive of CarTrawler Bobby Healy; and investor Brian Caulfield.

Also on the list are FoodCloud co-founder Iseult Ward, Pointy and Plink founder Mark Cummins, and Des Traynor, who cofounded Intercom. ScaleIreland’s LizMcCarthy, Draper Espirit partner and founder Nicola McClafferty, and Kinzen’s Aine Kerr have all lent their expertise to the programme too, among others. It’s the current generation of great builders showing their expertise to the potential next generation, McCarthy says.

That includes workshops on design basics, what happens when you start a company, an introduction to venture capital. It’s about giving them an awareness rather than expecting them to walking out of Patch as fully-formed entrepreneurs, ready to raise millions in capital.

“We’re focused on bringing people in, giving them the experience, hoping that sort of that raises their aspirations, raises their ambitions,” said McCarthy.

Among those experts are investors, who ordinarily may have an eye on the future talent in the industry. But although it would be a boost for Patch to see some of the ideas that are created and refined in its programmes go on to attract major funding, that isn’t the end goal of the programme.

The focus for Patch is on creating and testing ideas out, rather than serving as a fast track to investment funds. That focus came about, McCarthy says, partly because of advice from Patrick Collison, the 31-year-old Stripe co-founder who set up his first company in 2007. With Patch’s younger focus, the focus on building a business may not be the right approach for the accelerator.

“People develop at different stages, right and starting a company brings its own sort of distinct pressures,” said McCarthy. “Sometimes it seems that it’s more important for people just to explore and build, and chase their curiosity, rather than be sort of pushed too quickly into the sort of chewing glass journey of building a company, right?”