Helena Pozniak
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Keeping pace with the changing landscape

The Telegraph
As technology developments accelerate, Helena Pozniak finds out who is making the most of them by inventing life-enhancing solutions and products

Time travel, invisibility cloaks, teleportation… Some predictions remain the stuff of science fiction, for now. But other advances that seemed improbable — from driverless cars to jet packs and wearable technology — are almost upon us or here already. We speak to three innovative women who are helping to transform the world as we know it by developing new uses for technology and science.

WILD ABOUT NETWORKING

If cows can be connected to the internet, why not elephants? Sarah Eccleston, 44, lead for the Internet of Things (IoT), UK and Ireland, Cisco, ended up in an elephant orphanage in Zambia in her spare time after she asked herself this very question.

“Conservation is my passion and, traditionally, IT would have had nothing to do with it. But technology exists to tackle elephant poaching; it’s a question of overcoming barriers,” she says. Every year, 35,000 elephants are killed in Africa, mostly by poachers plundering ivory, and elephant babies are orphaned. But catching those responsible is nigh on impossible in the 5.5 million-acre Kafue National Park.

“If we could connect elephants to the internet via a sensor, a ranger would know when an elephant is shot as its heartbeat would stop. They could then quickly get to the scene,” explains Eccleston. She planned to use the same sensors that cows are currently fitted with, linking them to the internet and allowing farmers to measure signs of health and whereabouts.

On site and with no electricity, she managed to build a Wi-Fi network using a satellite link and router, but was foiled by the beasts themselves: “When the elephants rolled in the mud, their sensors would come off.”

Eccleston is keeping a close eye on the development of sensor technology. “At some point, you’ll simply be able to spray a sensor on an elephant to connect it to the internet,” she says. She also looked at setting up a cheaper, low-bandwidth network around the reserve – athough this, too, has its challenges due to the size of the reserve and a lack of resources.

Another option she considered included connecting the land itself to the internet, rather than the elephants — technology already used in warzones to “warn” when enemy troops are on the move. But the sensors couldn’t tell the difference between a poacher and an impala and, as Eccleston found, “there are hundreds of impalas about”.

Undeterred, she considered remote drones to monitor bush land and deliver intelligence, and solar-charged mobile phones that used a sound-recognition app to alert rangers to gunshots. “Challenges exist, but the ecosystem of technology also does — we’re at the stage of figuring out how to use it,” says Eccleston, who aims to get some of these ideas off the ground through an industry consortium in the coming year.

MATERIAL GIRL

As a schoolgirl, Amber McCleary, now 19, had an idea. Looking for a distraction from her GCSEs in 2011, she set about inventing a dog bed that didn’t smell. She researched various materials, including bamboo, before turning her attention to copper, which has antimicrobial properties and is therefore able to kill microorganisms. McCleary has since created her odourless dog bed, as well as odourless socks and underwear, but her work has gone further than she had ever imagined.

When she started exploring her idea, McCleary was aware she needed help, so she approached a family friend, former beautician and award-winning inventor Paula Ward. Under her guidance, she began researching the properties of copper and eventually established a company, Copper Clothing, which makes products from fabric infused with copper ions.

“Applications for copper clothing are endless,” she says. “It’s even being used by health workers tackling Ebola.”

Following 70 lab tests and six separate studies, commissioned by McCleary and Ward, and carried out by microbiologists and scientists at the University of Southampton, the duo believed they had enough evidence that copper fabric could prevent hospital infections and conditions such as athlete’s foot and thrush, as well as tackle body odour.

McCleary’s company now has four full-time staff and makes antimicrobial bed sheets and clothing. “The most challenging part was convincing people of the benefits of copper, especially as I’m still only a student and not a scientist or a doctor,” says McCleary, who is studying forensic psychology at Portsmouth University and overseeing her business in her spare time.

To gain support for her work, she spoke at a Royal Society of Medicine innovation summit and, in December, helped launch National Inventors Day, a BT initiative. Copper Clothing products are currently on trial at Croydon NHS University Hospital — the fabric is being tested in compression stockings to see if it can improve diabetic ulcers, and in maternity wear to observe how it affects caesarean wounds and other potential post-birth infections. In an initiative by the Ebola Private Sector Mobilisation Group, around 50 Copper Clothing suits are being worn by health workers in Sierra Leone, and McCleary hopes scientific trials will eventually begin in the region.

So where does her drive come from? “My mum has always pushed me to invent things. I’m proof that anyone from any background with enough perseverance, self-belief and courage can be a successful inventor.”

MAKES SCENTS

Picture this: as your stress levels rise, a biosensor embedded in your clothing detects a change in pulse, sweat, body odour and facial expression and releases a delicately balanced cocktail of aromas — lavender to help you relax, or citrus oils to reduce anxiety. Or a personalised burst of evocative fragrance rekindles memories for someone struggling with dementia.

“Smell is our most primitive, yet often forgotten, sense,” says inventor and entrepreneur Dr Jenny Tillotson, 48, whose work combines design, fashion and technology. A reader in sensory fashion at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, she is also a visiting scholar at the Institute of Biotechnology, University of Cambridge.

Currently, she’s working to develop technology that delivers scent on demand. The product will take the form of a hidden capsule that releases a “scent bubble” around the user’s face. Triggers include biometric feedback, sound, location, a timer or pre-programmed smartphone setting. “It has to be wearable but invisible,” says Dr Tillotson. Personalised scents could complement mood and experiences, and the applications are vast — from insect repellent released at the sound of a mosquito to scent that curbs or creates appetite.

“It’s a completely new market; there’s so much to explore,” says Dr Tillotson, who has already worked on developing certain prototype products. For instance, supported by outdoor-clothing company The North Face, she has incorporated energising peppermint-scent capsules in rucksacks for runners. Currently, she is preparing to raise funding for her own start-up, Sensory Design and Technology.

Interestingly, Dr Tillotson has an arts background and she didn’t enjoy science at school. After her fashion degree and a PhD in textiles, she was drawn to wearable technology and the science of wellbeing through her interest in mental health.

Her work crosses several disciplines: aromachology (the neuroscience of smell), technology, and biotechnology linked to triggers and delivery devices. “I’ve picked up the basics and learned to communicate my ideas,” she says. “A scientist I worked with once said to me, ‘Don’t pretend to be a scientist.’ That was sound advice, as my role has always been more creative.”

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