Teen inventors build a better bandage dispenser

Melbourne’s Mac.Robertson Girls’ High school, has a reputation for churning out high achievers. But Aditi Venkatesh and Xialene Chang have just raised the bar. Besides undoubtedly impressive ATAR scores, the pair – both 18 – will graduate this year with a patent to their names.

The girls’ high school experience has charted their future course. The passionate entrepreneurs plan to nurture the commercialisation of their invention – a device that conveniently dispenses adhesive bandages off a roll – as they proceed through university and along the way, start tackling other global needs.

Their passion was ignited three years ago by Girls Invent, the brainchild of inventor and business entrepreneur Mark Glazebrook. The program was a response to his daughter’s query: why was the roll call of great inventors overwhelmingly male? Girls Invent now operates in 100 Victorian schools. The program proceeds over six sessions which last from two hours to an entire day.

Sitting with me in a South Melbourne café, a stone’s throw from the school, Aditi and Xialene recalled Glazebrook’s three-step process to unleashing their inner inventor.

First they were invited to peruse their everyday lives for gaps and annoyances. For them, it turned out to be the sorry state of adhesive bandages. They considered the boxes to be both bulky and fragile. Atidi also recalled her recent frustration trying to apply a band-aid to a nasty paper cut on her finger with only one hand.

With the problem firmly in their sights, they were invited to proceed to step two: brain storm a solution – no ideas barred.

Step three was to try their hand at a pipe cleaner prototype.

But how did the girls go from pipe cleaners to a patent granted by the Australian patent office just three years later? The school’s IT department helped transform the pipe cleaner prototype to a 3D-printed model. The school also selected the girls to compete at an end of year pitching competition involving twenty teams from high schools across Australia. Adhesive bandages won.

At that point the girls took advantage of the school’s old girls’ network – Palladians. Vicky Papachristos was a board member of several companies including Scale Investor – a female-led angel investment group that exclusively invests in female entrepreneurs. Papachristos took the girls on, mentoring them through the development of their product and now as their business partner, providing angel funding.

“I think we’re the youngest,” says Xialene. “Vicky’s been like a mother to us, developing our skills,” adds Aditi.

Nurtured by Papachristos, the next step was sending the girls to the US in July 2016 for the Yale Young Scholars global program, an academic enrichment and leadership program that hothouses high school students from around the world over two-week sessions held both on Yale’s campus in New Haven and then at the Yale Center Beijing in China.

“We met so many amazing people, some were multimillionaires at our age!” says Aditi.

But many were not-for-profit entrepreneurs like David Byun, who set up the company ‘Pen in a Box’. The Robin Hood idea is to collect stationary from students in wealthy countries to deliver to those in poorer places. The girls have set up a Melbourne chapter.

Xialene was so amazed by teenage tycoons, she embarked on a 4000-word thesis this year as part of her year 12 studies. “Essentially, I wanted to know what compels teens to becomes entrepreneurs at such a young age.”

Her findings show that they are often driven by a sense of altruism. Even those who make money, like the creator of ‘Nohbo’ an eco-friendly shampoo, says “that wasn’t what motivated them”.

Xialene’s findings also show that teen entrepreneurs are highly creative risk-takers.

Returning from Yale, the girls were inspired to take their idea to the market. “As with any prototype, we noticed some problems,” says Aditi. “We want it to be the best.”

Papachristos organised meetings with engineering firms that helped them fine tune their product. “They were very supportive and professional,” says Xialene. “I believe that there’s a huge appetite for young innovators.”

And then there was the issue of writing the patent. Jenny Petering from FB Rice offered her services pro bono. But she insisted the girls should write it, and she’d revise it. “That was the really interesting part,” says Xialene. The process took six months.

There’s no doubt the girls’ success owes a lot to their mentors. But a large part comes down to their partnership. It is remarkable to see two youngsters (or people of any age) work together in such a harmonious and professional way. By turns they finish each other’s sentences, or apologize if one has accidentally cut the other off.

They’d barely spoken before meeting at a workshop in year 10 when the group was asked to pair-up.

Their eyes met and that was it. “Let’s call it prophetic,” says Xialene.

They found their skills to be complementary.

“I’ll focus on organising meetings and the commercial aspects like marketing and business plans,” says Aditi. “Xialene is an amazing spatial thinker,” she adds.

“I designed and developed the inventions and worked closely with Jenny Petering to develop the prototype,” says Xialene.

But, Xialene quickly adds, “we’ve learned from each other’s skills. We don’t want to segregate the experience.”

“I feel our goals started to merge”, says Aditi. “As co-founders we understand both the commercial and technical aspects. That’s important for the product we are trying to achieve, and the message we send to investors.”

Has their academic work suffered? They don’t think so. “It’s forced us not to waste time,” says Xialene. “We are also able to load share as needed,” says Aditi.

As for the future, Aditi is inspired to study commerce. Xialene is thinking of combining commerce and law. Both will be carrying their bandage business plans forward and they plan to make more inventions. “I want to branch out into other world problems”, says Aditi. We don’t know what they will be; we’ll see what’s the most pressing at that time.”

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