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Student stories - Business

Zach Preston

Imagine you own a bach, which runs on tank water. Every time you rent it out, the guests use up all the water. There’s no way of checking the water level without going all the way there, grabbing a ladder and taking a look.

ACG Parnell College student Zach Preston, 17, has come up with a solution that could allow farmers, holiday home owners and anyone on tank water (that’s more than 500,000 Kiwis) to keep track of the water level in their tank. He calls the project Sentinel.

It’s a small, robust and cheap method of wirelessly displaying the owner’s water level on their smartphone. The solar-powered device is mounted on the water tank and transmits the real-time water level, as well as helpful tips, analytics and alarms to encourage sustainable usage habits. The application can be connected to local tank-refilling companies to ensure a user never runs out of water.

The project won the 2015 Codeworx Challenge, as well as the 2016 Auckland IdeaStarter Competition for the under-18 category.

“Overall my aim is to set out to help Kiwis. Knowing how much water you have should be a necessity,” explains Zach, a talented student who gained 7 A* Grades at IGCSE level, rock climbs and lives by the mantra, “healthy body, healthy mind, healthy soul.”

Since he developed the first prototype in 2015, Zach has honed Sentinel’s design as part of his Cambridge coursework. With help from his Computer Science teacher Mrs Smith, he has made the device fully customisable, adding long-range transmitters, solar panels and a long-life battery to better suit the varying needs of farmers, holiday-home owners and rural home-owners. And as a part of his AS Design and Technology coursework, he developed the physical look of the product and packaging, to the standard of which it would be seen in a store.

But one idea is clearly not enough. Zach is also developing Illume – an application to help electricity consumers adopt sustainable energy habits. It provides consumers with real-time details of their on-grid electricity usage, as well as analytics and tips to encourage sustainable habits.

The idea was highly commended at the Innovation Challenge where Zach’s efforts were rewarded with $5,000 and one of the judges described him as a ‘disruptive student’. In innovation speak, that means Zach has the potential to revolutionise industries.

Although he’s realistic about the challenges of bringing a product to market, he is passionate about the potential his ideas have, not just in New Zealand, but globally.

“Although we don’t know what kind of new technologies, industries and jobs that will emerge in future that could reshape my direction, in ten years, I would like to have a Mechatronics degree, gained some work experience, and have commercialised Sentinel, among other projects.”

For now, he’s doing everything he can to learn about business by independently participating in events and competitions such as VentureUp, IdeaStarter and the LightningLab Innovation Challenge. He’s also a peer tutor and a member of the school’s Science, Programming and Design Clubs, and Vex Robotics – among other things.

“There’s more to education than just textbooks,” he explains. “You learn a lot of real-world skills from activities like competitions and even if you don’t win, you better yourself by doing, failing and learning. When people are motivated, their true potential starts to shine.”