herald

Saturday 1 November 2014

Million dollar boy who changed the face of the web

Patrick Collison with his BT Young Scientist of the Year award

A First Communion present of a computer game may not seem such a big deal, but for Patrick Collison it was worth millions -- €3.2 million to be exact.

The gift ignited his fascination with computer programming and set him on his way to becoming a hi-tech whiz kid.

At the age of eight, he took a computer course in the University of Limerick. Aged 10, he started studying books on computer programming. But it was only when he won the BT Young Scientist of the Year in 2005, still at the tender age of 16, that the world sat up and took notice. He unveiled a completely new computer language to the awestruck judges.

"As the day progressed, I got the feeling I might have won something, but I didn't expect this," he said after President Mary McAleese presented him with a cheque for €3,000 and his Waterford Crystal trophy.

Prize

"I'll probably do something intertwined with computers in the future," he said and joked he had no idea what he would spend the prize money on. "It's a nice problem to have, I suppose," he smiled.

The commercial potential of his new language, which speeded up the design of applications for the internet, was obvious. At the age of 17, he spurned advances from hi-tech firms and decided to enrol in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, where all the brightest minds study.

But following in the footsteps of Bill Gates, he dropped out of university opting to set up a company with his brother John and two American friends.

"We were using eBay and could just see that there was a way to better organise things for people who were using it a lot," he said.

Using his unique computer language, he developed Auctomatic to allow millions of eBay users to track what they sell and formulate a selling strategy to get the best results. A bidding war quickly erupted between companies eager to snap up the technology and it was finally bought by a Canadian company, Live Current Media for a cool €3.2m.

Patrick now lives in Vancouver and is director of engineering with the company that made his fortune, but the teenage multimillionaire is still aware of the part the BT Young Scientist played in his success.

"It helped me hugely -- there's no doubt about it," he told the Herald.

"It was the Young Scientist competition, and not something business-related, that most impressed Automatic's first investor."

Tomorrow the doors will open in the RDS to reveal the 500 projects picked from the record 1,616 entries all vying for the top prize and to follow the success of Patrick.

The winner will scoop €5,000 and a trophy, and will go on to represent Ireland at the EU Contest for Young Scientists, but they will all be hoping this could be just the beginning of their success.

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