Abu Dhabi computer whizz-kid starts young on fintech entrepreneurship
When Ralph Vreman was three, his parents often gave him their tablet computer to play games on.
“But he was always in the menu,” says his father, Andre, 46, a mechanical engineer and entrepreneur. “He was really interested in the structure of the computer from when he was three, even before he could read, he could operate this system.”
A few years later, at the age of nine, Ralph started teaching himself computer programming. And when he was 12 he won a prize at his first entrepreneurship hackathon, which challenges competitors to create a minimum viable product, for an anti-virus software product he built from scratch.
Now 14, he has just set up an online company, ralphsoft.net, to sell his products – software and development kits for benchmarking and testing computers.
The Brighton College pupil, from the Netherlands, who has lived in Abu Dhabi with his family for over three years, was entirely self-taught until he joined the school six months ago. Now he is learning under the instruction of his computer science teacher.
“[My teacher at Brighton College] gave me the GCSE computer science book. When I looked at it, the programming was too simple for me because I’m really good at programming now. I have worked at it for years. You need to put time into programming to be good at it. You have to do it every day and you have to look online at how to do things and how to solve problems, because essentially programming is solving problems,” he says.
“I started making my first programme in Linux [an operating system] when I was six – it was a shell script programme and creating it was hard because I didn’t know about basic programming logic back then. Then when I was 10 I got into Visual Basic and C#. That is also very hard at the beginning but then I got better at it over the years.”
His parents began to realise his talent when he was around 12 and signed him up to compete in a hackathon at New York University Abu Dhabi on the suggestion of a family friend.
“For us New York University was a milestone,” says Ralph’s father Andre.
“We suddenly realised that everything he had been learning at home, and it was always completely on his own, he was on par with university level students. So it was somehow of an eye-opener for us and we started to think how can we help?”
Ralph initially felt out of his depth at the event, so he followed the organiser’s instructions and started building his own working demo product. While the multi-platform anti-virus programme worked well at the time, he does not consider it good enough to sell on his website.
He has since taken part in three more hackathons. The third of which, the GlassQube Startup Weekend Fintech Abu Dhabi in December, he finished second in for his idea for an integrated, platform which manages a person’s entire portfolio of cards via a flashdrive.
The product, called InOneKey, is designed to replace the need to use credit and debit cards entirely. Instead of inserting a payment card into a machine, you insert the flash drive and the machine gives you a list of cards to select from.
“This greatly reduces fraud because you need a password to use the device and it is also three times encrypted,” says Ralph.
“I want to kick this off, but I need help from other people, from my team in general. I can make test units and because I have a USB hub I can mass produce and make seven USBs at a time. I’m still in touch with my team [the web developers, app developers, designers etc that joined him in developing the product at the hackathon]. I really want them to be involved.”
He aims to keep the product a division of his website. He also wants to keep building his website and taking part in hackathons to build his collaboration skills and knowledge while also keeping up his school studies.
“Programming should be a skill that everyone should know. I am a programmer and I go to these hackathons because it helps me. I gain more skill and I get to collaborate with people with similar skills and build a good product. If you make a product individually it’s hard to get the design right. So you do need multiple people to create a successful product,” he says.
Ralph wants to study computer science, high-level maths and the basic sciences at university in the future.
“When I leave school I will work on Ralphsoft and I will make it a really big thing,” says Ralph, who speaks Dutch and English fluently, and a little German, Spanish and Arabic.
“I want to start manufacturing devices after university – maybe mobile phones and virtual reality products,” he adds.
“For me it’s a requirement to go to university, without it nothing is possible. I know Bill Gates is a dropout, but dropping out of school is not good.”
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Updated: January 16, 2017 04:00 AM