By Rivka Borochov
Six Israeli teenagers won a $5,000 prize at an international competition at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) last summer (2012) for their FreezeStick invention designed to keep food and medicine in a cooler at the right temperature for an extended period. The Israelis beat out 250 other teams at the event.
The 14-year-old Tzvia Yeshiva High School boys from southern Israel, all friends since kindergarten, received one of two second-place awards at the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Global Innovation Challenge. FLL runs themed meets every year to help young teams develop innovative solutions for real-world problems. Its Food Factor Challenge focuses on food safety.
The winning Israeli idea was sparked by Chana Itzkovitz, grandmother of Tidhar Gabber, when he let his family know that he and his friends were searching for an idea for the competition. Itzkovitz mentioned that when she had oral surgery, the dentist gave her an ice pack that starts to freeze when shaken. Her grandson and his friends Eitam Aharon, Ilan Ben-Hamo, Naftali Deutsch, Dvir Cohen and Yedidya Froyndlich latched onto the idea and the wheels in their young scientific minds starting turning.
The group of boys had already racked up some notable achievements in past robotics competitions, and took the idea to their after-school science club at the Yeruham Science Center in their southern town. “If the right tools are provided and the seeds are planted, the sky is the limit,” said Dr. Rahel Knoll, who heads the center. Chemists from Perrigo, a pharmaceutical company based in Yeruham, helped the boys develop the new idea. The FreezeStick was born.
A lifesaver in hot climates
They built it so that when the plastic stick is broken, two chemicals mix inside the FreezeStick to reach minus-5 degrees Celsius. The product can be activated and tossed into a cooler to keep the contents at the right temperature for an additional six to 10 hours after icepacks have melted. “They took my small idea and made it big,” says Itzkovitz, not looking for any credit on the innovation. “At first they talked and planned about what kind of materials they would need, how much they would need, then they took the idea very far,” she says. “They took food and left it outside and conducted some scientific experiments to see if the stick could work to successfully preserve it.”
In summer months, the FreezeStick could become one of those essential household items that every person will keep on the shelf, like a safety pin, says Itzkovitz. It could be particularly useful in places on a journey that extends beyond the time limits of the icepack, or beyond access to a bag of ice. Cold food that gets warm becomes a breeding ground for bacteria.
In terms of humanitarian applications, the invention could certainly be of great use in Africa, where distances between electric refrigerators can be far. This puts the efficacy of some medicines at risk, and it’s a big problem in Africa.
Startup nation of the future
The prize money has been used to help the kids design a prototype, and now the students are looking for investors who might want to help them take the idea to the next stage.
Judges for the prize included the director of the USPTO, the XPRIZE company head that markets flights to space, as well as Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and holder of about 400 other patents.
“One thing that truly inspired me at this event was being able to watch members from each team sit on a panel and answer questions from the audience about their inventions, about their lives and about their dreams for the future,” wrote USPTO Commissioner Peggy Focarino on the office’s official blog after the event. “They were smart, they were funny – they were so obviously still children, and yet to see them in all their exuberance was to also witness a young generation accepting its roles and responsibilities as the next innovators and problem solvers.”
Itzkovitz predicts her grandson and his innovative pals will go far in life, probably becoming Israel’s startup nation generation of the near future. Maybe even earlier than most: Out of six teens chosen from the southern region of Israel to participate at Tel Aviv University’s science summer school this year, three were from the FreezeStick team. For a month in August, instead of hanging out at the beach, the boys studied math and science all day long.
Itzkovitz is not thinking about them becoming millionaires, but more importantly that they could invent something that is “making good things for humanity, to help us.”