Success Remained Fresh for FOOD FACTOR Challenge Winners (published November 2013)

For the winners of the 2012 FIRST® LEGO® Global Innovation Award, the experience remains transformative, one that continues to shape the lives of young Americans and Israelis who comprised the four top teams.

The co-winners of the FOOD FACTOR SM Challenge – SIS Robotics Revolution of Connecticut and Moderately Confused of Ohio – each won a $250,000 contract from Edison Nation to patent, prototype and produce their inventions. Runners-up MATobots of New York and Seven World Wonders of Israel, meanwhile, each received a $5,000 grant from the X Prize Foundation toward securing a patent.SIS Robotic Revolution

But the impact of their accomplishments has no monetary value. “Not many middle-schoolers get exposed to the patent process,” says Moderately Confused coach Paul Glaubitz. Nor do many middle-schoolers invent something that is being considered by the state Department of Agriculture as a requirement on packaging.  The prefix “un” appears before “safe,” preventing the barcode from being scanned on the team’s Erasable Barcode when food is no longer safe to eat.

Team member Ananya Rajagopal was recently named one of the 30 Under 30 Top Engineers to Watch. “She’s really starting to realize how women and girls lose interest in pursuing science and technology careers paths, so she mentors teams,” Paul says. His two sons, 15-year-old Edwin and 13-year-old Peter, were among the original members. Like most of the other members, both are still involved in FIRST® – Edwin in FIRST® Tech Challenge and Peter with FLL® as a member of Moderately Confused.

The team, which formed a company called MC Solutions, has filed for a utility patent but has found that the road to success can be fraught with frustration. “Sometimes what you want to do and what makes sense from a business perspective don’t always line up. It’s a hard lesson,” Paul says.

But setbacks have increased the students’ resolve. “You have to have the grit to say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to take what somebody else said as the final answer. I’m going to make my own answer.’ That doesn’t mean you ignore any feedback you might have gotten.”

The team members, who are all interested in pursuing science and engineering, were invited to be Global Innovation Award ambassadors at the FLL World Festival, as were members of SIS Robotics Revolution.

“That was a phenomenal experience for our kids,” recalls SIS coach John Niski. “They were treated like rock stars. It was great for them to see the magnitude of the FLL program, with kids all over the world doing the same thing they’ve been doing.”

John’s seven original team members – six of whom are still involved in FIRST – have applied for a full patent on their Smart Sticker, which indicates safe and unsafe food temperatures by changing color from green to red. His son Joseph is now on a FIRST Robotics Competition team, and younger brother David is on one of John’s FLL teams.

Moderately Confused“If not many changes are made, we’ll continue to pursue the idea, invest some money, look for investors, do a prototype and come up with a marketing plan,” he says. “We ultimately had to form an LLC. That was a great learning experience for them.”

Meanwhile, at their biweekly meetings, “they have been taking their Global Innovation Award experience and boiling it down to a resume they can use when they apply for schools and jobs,” says John, who became a coach 16 years ago. “Twenty-four thousand hours later, I’m still in it,” he laughs.

Michelle Monticciolo, a MATobots supporter, says her team’s design, an intelligent milk pitcher that detects spoilage by measuring pH change, is “on hold right now” as team members consider less expensive options per the advice of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office representatives. Having learned from her husband’s 14 years of experience pursuing his own patent, Michelle says, “If you have the feedback from them that says, ‘Think along these lines,’ you want to think along those lines.”

Though most of the team members are leaning toward careers in science and engineering, several have had to step away from their involvement in FIRST temporarily because of the arduous public high school application process in New York City. Most intend to rejoin, and Michelle’s son Michael – a team member – is hoping to be accepted to a school with a significant robotics program.MATobots

The greatest takeaway the kids reported from their Global Innovation Award experience, according to Michelle, was the “values that were either acquired or sharpened.” One boy appreciated the precision he learned through FLL; another, the importance of commitment; for one girl, it was the problem-solving process; for her son Michael, it was the collaborative nature of the program; for another, it was the sense of achievement.

“It was all about the values and lessons they learned, not the money or fame. That’s a mature way to look at things for these kids, who were all of 12 when they competed,” Michelle observes.

The members of Israel-based team Seven World Wonders have since merged with other FLL teams, forming an FRC® team. After having made international news with their FreezeStick, which helps ice cool an additional 10 hours in a cooler, the team visited the FLL World Festival and got to meet the Israeli President Shimon Peres and the country’s minister of science.

“Being part of FIRST is a very important part of life for the team members, most of whom have chosen to do the Israeli matriculation exams in STEM-related subjects,” says coach Reuven Stahl. “Most of them still innovate in their free time.”

One member, Tidhar, has joined a specialized high school program that allows him to complete a college degree in chemistry simultaneously. “One of the big incentives for him to join this program was his participation in FLL,” Reuven shares.

For fellow members Napthali and Yedidia participated in a science and technology summer camp where they took college courses. “The FLL program gave them their first glimpse into the scientific and technological world that they all wish to be part of in the future,” Reuven says.