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Techwatch | 02/10/2019

MEET THE FINALISTS: Michael Upham, Founder of Inc Skills

Michael Upham built a product as a school project in 2017 and incorporated it as a company last month.

For his A level in Product Design, he canvassed the opinions of teachers at a local primary school, asking them what problems they were facing in teaching their students.

“The teachers told me a lot of children were coming into primary school without basic writing skills,” he says. “This is bad for most children, but for kids with dyspraxia or other learning difficulties, it’s especially bad – in these cases, their fine motor skills of their hands may be underdeveloped.”

Michael started looking into how a product could help children learn to write. After secondary school in his hometown of Leeds in Yorkshire, he moved over to Belfast for his degree. He’s now in his second year as a mechanical engineering student at Queen’s University Belfast.

“I designed a couple of products that are primarily for younger children but can be used up until about 11 years of age. One of them directly strengthens muscles in the hands,” he says.

About Inc Skills:

  • The company will produce sets of different grips that fit over a pencil and can help children to build muscle tone, as they learn to write
  • The current prototypes are 3D printed, but in the future they might be injection-moulded to produce them on a larger scale
  • One product looks like a pair of tweezers on a pen, that helps kids get used to gripping the pen correctly – other products are specifically to help kids with dyslexia
  • Inc Skills will be run as a non-profit company, Michael says, “so the products can be in every school across the UK and Ireland – so even schools that don’t have much money can have access to these products.”

Michael tells me that he also has other products in design, including a large class-sized set of tools that are based on chess pieces – so a whole class full of children could benefit from them.

“Kids don’t want to be seen as having a problem that would isolate them from other children,” he says, “so the product design has to take that into account.”

A final product that Inc Skills will aim to get into production is targeted at children with dyslexia. Michael tells me that dyslexic children can read writing better on a coloured page, rather than the typical black text on a white page. “This tool looks like a bookmark that tints the colour of the page – it’s an acrylic overlay but it’s only the size of one line – so they don’t slip down lines when they’re reading. It allows kids to access books that you find on the high street or in the library,” he says.

Michael has been involved in sports and music from a young age. He started athletics when he was 12, and trampolining when he was 19. He says, “I wanted to get gymnastics conditioning training to help with my pole vaulting.” The trampolining then took him to both the Irish Open and the Scottish Open competitions for athletics, and he also competes for Queen’s.

On the music side he says that he plays in jazz and swing bands, playing trombone and singing.

What are Michael’s ambitions for Inc Skills?

“Accessibility and inclusivity are the two main aims of this company.” He goes on, “A year ago this company was just a bit of a dream – I thought why not? Give it a go. First year university students typically don’t start companies, but I thought: let’s just give it a try.”

Inc Skills is now a finalist in the 2019 Invent competition in the ‘Engineering’ category sponsored by Creagh Concrete. The Invent Final Awards night, sponsored by Bank of Ireland UK, will be held on Thursday 10th October. Tickets are available here.