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An idea that could change the world?

An idea that could change the world?Can you imagine inventing gadgets to help the third world and scooping a handful of awards for your projects - all before your 22nd birthday?

Social entrepreneur Emily Cummins does not have to imagine it - this has been her life since her career as an inventor took off four years ago.
Here she tells us how a simple but sustainable invention can go a long way and shares her tips on how to get ahead as an ethical inventor.

Emily’s first project was a solar-powered fridge. “People thought it was impossible but it’s now reached so many people,” says the 22 year-old student.
Hers is a happy success story, which has transformed the lives of countless communities in Africa. But it may never have happened if it hadn’t been for Emily’s determination and desire to help others.

Making an idea a reality

At the age of 18, equipped with a few rudimentary tools and a lot of self-belief, Emily travelled to Africa on a self-funded gap year to test her prototype fridge, which she devised as a teenager.

The simple invention involves lining the fridge cavity with an absorbent material such as sheep’s wool, which is soaked in water. The sun then evaporates the water while an inner cylinder in the fridge transfers the heat, leaving the compartment cool enough to store food and medicines.

"The idea was based on a principal people in Africa already knew about but hadn’t really developed properly. It felt wrong selling it. So, I showed people I met how to make their own fridges using whatever materials were to hand”, Emily said.

The knowledge has since been passed on by word-of-mouth and some enterprising individuals have even set up their own small businesses manufacturing fridges for sale in their own communities.

Becoming an inventor

Emily’s passion for inventing was inspired by her grandfather, a former engineer. She said: “As a child I used to spend hours with him and my cousin in his shed. I used to make toys, jewellery boxes, anything I could think of from the left-over materials in the shed. When I went to school I kept that interest up. Before I even started secondary school I knew how to use all the woodwork and metalwork tools and knew about the properties of different materials.”

During her teenage years Emily entered several competitions and managed to raise her profile with the solar-powered fridge, which has helped her to win countless awards including the British Female Innovator of the year 2007 and the Diamond Award for Exceptional Creativity. She is now studying Entrepreneurship, Social Enterprise, Management and Sustainability part-time at Leeds University.

Giving something back

Emily calls herself a social entrepreneur because she believes strongly in using her ideas to help others. She said: “I’m a very motivated person but I’m only motivated by stuff that I believe in and which I find interesting. For example, the fridge has the potential to help thousands of people because it can keep food fresh and store life-saving medicines. Many people have ideas and just want to make lots of money out of them. I don’t understand that mindset.”

And the future

While Emily is happy to continue sharing her knowledge to help the developing world, she believes she can also turn her idea into a profitable business. She is now working on a commercial model, which can be sold to pharmaceutical companies or marketed for use on campsites or boats. She also has a new project: “I’m looking at developing a new biofuel made from the oil of a plant that grows in very arid parts of the world. I hope that it will have a positive impact on a lot of peoples’ lives”.

Emily’s tips for other hopeful entrepreneurs and inventors

  • Entering competitions is really beneficial. It worked for me and gave me loads of media coverage to get my idea seen. Competitions also give you lots of confidence to stand up and believe in your project or idea.
  • You must believe in your project otherwise you won’t have the motivation to overcome the challenges.
  • Ask lots of questions, especially while you are young. I never used to ask questions, but then I realised there are so many people who are happy to help for free. If I was older, they might charge me for their expertise.
  • The most difficult part of the design process is identifying the problem. It’s important to identify a real world problem. Not what you think is necessary but what you know is needed. That way you’ve already got a market.

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