The Globe's B.C. bureau is profiling 10 young people aged 20 and under who are doing great things in fields ranging from arts to science to activism. Today, Madeleine Liu and Angela Wang are working on smart cutlery that could have the power to save lives.
Madeleine Liu and Angela Wang waited until the end of their pitch at a recent startup competition in Vancouver, where they outlined a plan to make cutlery that can detect nutrients and allergens in food, before revealing a small but important piece of information: their ages.
"We wanted to keep the playing ground relatively equal, so we didn't really feel the need to share our age before," said Ms. Liu, recalling the presentation to a crowd of 200 people that included a group of CEOs and other competitors.
"It was a collective gasp from the audience when they found out we were 16."
The two young women, both honour-roll students in Grade 11 at Vancouver's West Point Grey Academy, went on to place first at Startup Weekend Vancouver, taking home $10,000 in prizes for their newly created company they've named Culitech. They also won an award for the most disruptive idea.
Their goal is to develop a line of smart cutlery that will use a technology called near-infrared spectrometry to alert users about the nutritional content in their food, as well as the presence of allergens, toxins and bacteria.
"The mini-spectrometer that will go in the cutlery emits infrared waves to analyze the molecular breakdown of food," Ms. Liu explained. "All food molecules vibrate in their own way, creating a unique optical signature. Through this optical signature, we can determine what type of food it is and cross-reference it to a bioinformatics database to see what's inside."
The products are still in the research-and-development phase. The teens are currently trying to reduce the size of a spectrometer in order to build a functioning prototype, and are hoping that a strong showing at the Greater Vancouver Science Fair will help their company get extra funding.
"We're hoping to continue R&D so we can commercialize this product," said Ms. Liu, who was born and raised in Vancouver.
"By April, we want to actually see if the technological aspect of the product is valid," Ms. Wang added.
Ms. Liu and Ms. Wang are hopeful that their new product will not only be good business but will help people around the world.
"In Canada, one in 13 people have a food allergy, and in the U.S. every three minutes somebody is sent to the emergency room for a food-related allergy," Ms. Liu said. "So right now there is a need for medical innovation."
For Ms. Wang, the motivation behind the product is a bit more personal. She originally thought of smart cutlery as a solution to help fight the spread of helicobacter pylori, an orally transmitted bacterium that can lead to cancer and is common in China.
"I realized there's a need in the market for this product because my mom has helicobacter pylori," she said.
Because the product can be made to fit these two very specific needs, the teens hope that a bacteria-specific version of the product can be marketed in China, while another version, which focuses on identifying allergens and alerting users about nutritional content, may find its home in North America.
The need for the product is what the two entrepreneurs hope will make their business successful.
"A lot of successful businesses are about observing the trends around you that are starting to emerge," noted Ms. Wang, who has has lived in several different cities around the world, and said her travels have helped make her a keen observer of the world.
"I realized there are issues in the world like that, and there are products in the world that could be made to improve the situation."
Ms. Liu's mother, Crystal Hou, said her daughter has wanted to start a business for the past year and has been looking into different ideas for a while. She recalls a day last year when Madeleine caught her completely off guard and told her about her plans to be financially independent before leaving high school.
"She told me, 'Mommy, before I graduate, I would like to create a business.' As a parent, that was totally a miracle," Ms. Hou said. "Now she is trying to prove she can do it."
But while building a successful business and having financial independence is important to Ms. Liu, she said her ultimate goal is to be able to help people. That's why she isn't only focusing on Culitech and also plans to create social enterprises in the future.
"I know it may sound a little far-fetched, but I've been thinking of one that can help people that are unemployed get an education or find a job," she said.
Both girls have yet to decide where they want to go to university, but they are sure they want to study science and business, and get the skills to make Culitech a reality.
"The company that Madeleine and I are starting right now is something that I'm particularly interested in," Ms. Wang said, adding she got her business savvy from her parents. "Later on in life, I'm always open to other opportunities, but for now I want to stick to this idea and make it happen."