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19 junio 2024

Esther Borao: “The potential you have from a technological institute is multiplied”

She is a robotics engineer and maker. Her passion is to combine technology with creativity to create. She was the trigger for Coronavirus Makers, a Telegram group that was essential during the pandemic and which has now become a national association. She directs the Technological Institute of Aragon, ITAINNOVA.

You were the promoter of Coronavirus Makers, how was the idea born?

I planted the first seed, but it was something that took on a life of its own. The Thursday before the confinement, I started to receive different feedbacks, like the fact that people were not going to be able to go shopping, or Raúl Oliván, promoter of Frena La Curva, called me to tell me that he wanted to put in contact all those people who were not going to be able to go to work and who were going to have free time to help. I saw that in Italy there was a lack of ventilators in the ICUs and I think it was Ireland where they had also created a group to help… So I thought of creating a Telegram group.

What did it lead to?

A lot of people started getting involved and within two weeks there were over 16,000 people from lots and lots of places. There were a lot of people involved and leaders were generated who were promoting the initiative. We at ITAINNOVA were helping. We started with the issue of making ventilators and created subgroups for design, hardware, information… David Cuartielles and César García created a forum to connect healthcare professionals with makers so that they could work together. Subgroups were also created by autonomous communities to solve other needs of the pandemic, such as the creation of visors with 3D printers. It was a very nice network because the makers made them, the taxi drivers carried them… a great collaborative network was created. There were people from Latin America who also joined in.

How did ITAINNOVA help?

We at ITAINNOVA created the ITA Coronavirus group to see what was happening with the respirators and to help the Aragon region. There were seven respirators in Aragon, but then two were more advanced, although none of them were validated by the Spanish Medicines Agency. With the model developed by Jorge Cubeles, Luis García and the company BSH, we were helping in the technical part and advising on the steps for validation and certification. But there came a time during the pandemic when the ventilators were no longer necessary and, as they were such complex devices, we did not manage to complete the validation phase. But they are there if we would like to take it up again in another similar situation. With the visors, we set up a space in ITAINNOVA where volunteers came to assemble them, because we had the materials here and from Frena La Curva de Aragón Gobierno Abierto they came to pick them up and take them to the residences and other centres.

Even NASA got involved in the Coronavirus Makers project.

Yes, it was with the respirator that came out of Asturias, from Marcos Castillo. They got in touch with Nasa.

Now that the critical moment has really passed… what is left of all that initiative?

They have created an association called More than Makers, to promote citizen initiatives and open solutions and to be prepared in case something similar happens again, a pandemic, epidemic or something exceptional.

Has the pandemic served to raise awareness of the importance of a maker?

Esther Borao, directora de ITAINNOVA, fue la impulsora del grupo de Telegram Coronavirus Makers

It has served to raise awareness of what a maker is and what can be done with 3D printers, all the possibilities they have. Before, people saw it as a toy to create your own little things, but not to create things that are useful to others. In the end, with this we can spread the word about what a maker is, which is to learn, to share it with others and for others to learn from them. It has served to spread the values behind the maker world.

How did you know you wanted to be a maker?

When I finished my degree I really liked programming with Arduino, creative programming… it’s something I learnt on the internet while I was studying. I liked mixing art with technology. When you are taught something through the internet, you want to give it back. When I came to Zaragoza after finishing my degree in Seville, I met more people with the same concerns that I had, it was the Makeroni Lab Association, where we developed social, technological-artistic projects… and everything we did, we shared it open source. That’s where I started to get involved in the maker world. We organised Arduino Day Zaragoza, which I have a special affection for because I organised it for four years (the last one we couldn’t because of the pandemic) together with many colleagues, including David Cuartielles from Zaragoza, who is co-founder of Arduino.

Your first experience with education was Innovart. How did it come about?

As a result of Makeroni Lab, I worked at El Hormiguero for a year. We ran a project and I was in the science section. After that, we set up Innovart, which gradually shifted towards education. We managed the Remolacha Hub Lab and ended up becoming the Inventors Academy. I had that maker streak of creating inside me.

What is it like to teach children to be makers?

It’s teaching them to learn how to make things. I’m a more visual person, I learn by making things. I don’t memorise, I have to understand things and make them. It’s a different kind of learning that mixes different fields. In this way they learn science and technology using art and creative ways. Also, especially the little ones, they are like sponges. With Inventors Academy they meet different people, other children with the same interests, who like programming, electronics… and it’s a way of putting them in contact with each other and getting them to start to geek out together.

Another educational project was The Ifs, a family of toy robots to teach programming to children, which in the end did not come to fruition.

The Ifs started in 2017, almost in parallel to Innovart, with the guys from Makeroni Lab. In January 2020 we launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance and market them, although in the end it didn’t come out. I always say that I have taken a lot of good things from this failure. Thanks to the project I have been able to be in Gambia because I am considered one of the thirty young leaders in Europe and Africa. Luis Martín presented the academy and I presented The Ifs.

What was the experience like?

We visited the city and they took us to motivate and inspire others. We were on the radio and TV stations in Gambia and that gives you a vision of other realities, because here you live in your own bubble. You realise what is still to be done there and what technology can help you to learn and have more knowledge in other areas.

Thanks to The Ifs you were selected by the US embassy for the IVLP alumni for the US in the “Women in Entrepreneurship” programme in 2019.

Yes, it was three weeks with a woman from each country in the world and they took us to different places in the US to get to know the entrepreneurial ecosystem there. With the Santander Scholarship I also travelled to Silicon Valley to get to know the network of companies. The Ifs has not come out, but I have taken away many experiences linked to the project.

Will it ever become a reality?

Technology changes very quickly and it depends on many factors: whether there is funding, whether the time is right, whether there is the awareness of programming that there is in the United States… it’s complex, but you never know.

It was recently the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Did you see yourself as a robotics engineer as a child?

I liked painting, drawing and also mathematics and computers, but I was more inclined to be a fashion designer. In general, we always separated the sciences from the arts. My family told me to go into engineering because it had many opportunities, so when I had to decide, which was almost the day before, I enrolled in industrial engineering, because it seemed to me the most global. I did it with the idea of discovering what I liked the most. I had that more creative side and I chose the more electronic side. I also got into fashion to maintain and promote what I liked, and I continued as a photography model. When I finished my degree and started training children and adult workshops, I made electronic clothes. There is a common thread that allows you to make your own clothes with lights and we did workshops with luminous clothes.

Now she is also dedicated to bringing technology closer to girls through outreach programmes.

I do it from ITAINNOVA because I have less time. We give talks to help inspire and help them see that many things can be done through technology. I always explain to them that the most important thing is to experiment, to experiment and try it out, because they can’t know if they like something if they don’t try it. It’s something that is neither for boys nor for girls, of course. I see that engineering helps you to find solutions to problems, it gives you many tools for life. But I like to mix it with the artistic side.

Do you feel like a role model because of your gender and age?

On the one hand yes, but on the other hand it gives you a lot of respect. Sometimes people write to you because they feel identified with something you have said in a talk, or they thank you because you have inspired them or helped them. I have been achieving things that can help others and they see that there are possibilities to achieve it. If I have achieved it, others will be able to do it too.

Now you run ITAINNOVA, what has that change from creation to management been like?

It has been a big change. The potential you have from a technology centre is multiplied because all those ideas you want to develop can be done thanks to people who work and have so much talent. You can help many companies.

What are you learning at this stage?

What am I not learning! It has been a very different year with the pandemic, with a lot of uncertainty, although I am a person who moves well in uncertainty. I’ve lasted a year in every company I’ve been in, I like to change and do different things. It’s something that suits me and at ITA I do something different every hour. In the last few months I have learnt things I would never have imagined, how to be super agile, how to set up the centre, how to coordinate with teleworking, and also everything to do with the public side, many issues of European funding… everything from this part of management gives you a broader vision of how the world works.

Which ITAINNOVA projects are most promising?

We have launched the INNOIDEA 2020 programme to help businesses through the technological part, because when entrepreneurship programmes are made they always focus a lot on the business part, but not on the technology part, and we want to help make a minimum viable product so that Aragonese entrepreneurs can do business beyond that. In terms of Europe, we have the Digital Innovation Hub, which aims to be a one-stop shop for digitalisation services for SMEs; we are coordinators together with Unizar and the IAF. We are creating a community of SMEs from any sector to digitise and help them. We will soon be launching a technology bootcamp for under 35s to develop projects in teams based on electronic programming challenges and then help them to present them.

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