Ever struggled to express your genius thoughts on paper? Australian 110m hurdles champion Nick Hough has the solution you've been waiting for. We chat to the entrepreneur and Olympic hopeful about the app he designed to revolutionise the way we write.
As a smart, technically-minded character, Australian 110m hurdles champion Nick Hough has never been a man short of ideas. However, when it came to expressing those thoughts in words, life became infinitely tougher.
The IT and law graduate found writing essays at university an onerous task. It led the self-confessed “techo-geek” to hit upon a creative – although highly ambitious – solution.
“My writing struggles were the motivation for coming up with a piece of software that streamlines the process, so that my ideas can then be put through a software programme and automatically refined,” he says.
For the past year Hough has worked tirelessly on creating a proofreading app through his fledgling company GradeProof.com. It's been a long process, but Hough believes he has now cracked the code to enable the system to rephrase words and sentences, run grammatical checks, edit the size of the document and run plagiarism checks for students.
“Trying to get a computer to do things more quickly than humans can is not an easy task, and it is probably why no-one has done it before,” he adds. “We now know how to do it and we now have the algorithms sorted for how we can do it.”
ALL IN HIS STRIDE: Hough in action during the Beijing World Championships
Born in 1993 – an age well before iPhones and apps – Hough had his first taste of athletics aged nine and quickly established a reputation as one of Australia's most promising young athletes. In 2010 he secured 110m hurdles gold at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. Two years later he ran an Oceania junior record 13.27 to win silver behind Cuba's Yordan O'Farrill at the 2012 Barcelona World Junior Championships.
Yet the Sydneysider has never been one to overly obsess about his athletics life. Hough has many interests away from the oval and recalls learning how to programme a computer aged 13.
“I've always enjoyed being able to define a problem which initially I would have no idea how to solve,” he says. “With computers it is about breaking down problems into small little solvable steps.
“By programming computers you can tell them what to do and I really enjoy that process. This company had no idea how to build [the GradeProof app] before I started, but I set myself the goal that I could rephrase written text more effectively than humans could.”
Working solo on the project for the first eight months, he has more recently brought on board a co-founder to solve his puzzle. The prototype app was recently launched and is available on iPhone and iPads in Australia and New Zealand.
Hough stands proud with his baby following a year of graft (photo: David Tarbotton)
He says the initial feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The app primarily targets the world’s 60 million English speaking high school, secondary school and university students – but it can also be used by journalists (eek!), marketing departments and other professionals. Now on the verge of being rolled out in a more sophisticated and user-friendly web format, Hough and his co-founder are seeking serious investment in what they hope will prove a hit product.
He’s devoted countless hours to the project, but Hough disagrees that the work invested in his app could impact his athletics. The 22-year-old has just enjoyed the best year of his career, winning the Australian title in a PB 13.42 and competing at the Beijing World Championships. He believes his app development work complements his athletics, and vice-versa.
“My background as an athlete helps with running a start-up business. This is because through athletics I've had years of experience setting long-term goals, working day in and day out on many minor things and not seeing immediate rewards, accepting failure and having to change my methods.
“I think that is something unique to athletics in that you will find many athletes succeed in other areas of life. I also find that I can run the business very flexibly from a laptop, as I did when spending time training and racing out of Germany last year.”
Yet the question remains: should Hough's app become a huge success, will his devotion to athletics wane?
“No, I don’t think so,” he insists. “My main goal is to make the Olympic Games and I am on track for that. If the app ever takes off, then the investors need to know that I am an athlete and I’ll be doing training as well as working on the app. Yet I'm sure for most of the investors they will see that as an asset.”