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Socially-minded projects abound at I3 start-up competition

Fifth annual Harvard College Innovation Challenge recognizes top student entrepreneurs with six awards

This year, 231 students took part in the Harvard College Innovation (I3) Challenge, a new record.


A bike-sharing program was one of 25 semifinalist projects on display at the showcase and awards reception of the Harvard College Innovation (I3) Challenge. Photo by Jon Chase, Harvard News Office.

Cambridge, Mass. - April 3, 2012 - Students participating in the Harvard College Innovation (I3) Challenge this year generated dozens of promising ideas to improve the quality of everyday life. For some teams, that objective meant tackling education, health care, poverty, or crime—for others, the more mundane challenge of buying a shoe that fits.

Drawn by the call to "imagine—invent—impact," a record number of students participated in the year-long I3 program, forming 78 teams with students from 34 different concentrations. Over the course of the year, the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH) and Harvard Student Agencies coached the teams through the process of developing a business plan and provided the students with mentors for legal advice and other needs. The semifinalists, 25 teams in all, gathered on March 29 to share their final projects at a formal showcase and awards reception.

"The student start-ups were really impressive this year," says Paul Bottino, Executive Director of TECH, which is based at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

"It's inspiring to see the great range of needs and problems that these student-innovators are motivated to address," Bottino says. "They combine their education with creativity and technology to take on important social needs and discover compelling opportunities to pursue."

The I3 finale, held in the ballroom of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, culminated in the presentation of six awards:

Public-Sector Innovation Award (presented by Accenture)

A new award category this year recognizes entrepreneurial projects that focus on opportunities for innovation in the public sector. With initial funding provided by Accenture, through a 3-year sponsorship of TECH, the Public Sector Innovation Award recognizes promising ideas that engage with challenges in government.

The winner of the $10,000 prize is Instiglio, an initiative that connects non-profits with government funding by encouraging private funding agencies to "bet on outcomes" through social impact bonds. Successful projects—for example, an effort that reduces the number of new HIV infections in a city—would have the initial, private funding repaid by the government. Instiglio plans to take this model, which has been used successfully in Massachusetts and the United Kingdom, to tackle social problems in developing nations.

The founding members of Instiglio are all enrolled at the Harvard Kennedy School, working toward master's degrees in public policy or public administration and international development: Michael Belinsky, MPP '12, David Bullon, MPA/ID '12, Michael Eddy, MPA/ID '12, Avinish Gungadurdoss, MPA/ID '12, and Madalina Pruna, MPA/ID '12.

"It's been an amazing journey," says Gungadurdoss, reflecting on the experience of developing an idea under time pressure with his teammates. "You learn to remove your blinders and start seeing things you would normally see as barriers as new opportunities. It's an incredible mindset change that is necessary for those who wish to improve the status quo. This is a skill that carries forward in any future activity."

McKinley Family Grant for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Leadership in a Commercial Enterprise

The McKinley Family Grant for Commercial Enterprise is awarded to underclassmen who exemplify creativity and entrepreneurial leadership and whose projects demonstrate great potential for impact as a business.

The $10,000 prize has been awarded to Shoesy, a biometric approach to shoe shopping that takes precise measurements of the buyer's feet, creates a digital 3D model, and matches it electronically to the specifications of the available footwear.

The idea, developed by William Marks '13 (biomedical engineering), Svilen Kanev '12 (computer science), and Christina Chang, MBA '13, is"to find the shoe that fits your foot individually."

"When you place an order [for shoes] online, you don't have to worry whether they'll fit when they get there," the team says.

McKinley Family Grant for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Leadership in a Social Enterprise

The McKinley Family Grant for Social Enterprise recognizes underclassmen with the same qualities as their commercial-track peers and who aim to achieve innovative impact through a mission-driven venture.

The winner of the $10,000 prize is Global Village Fruits, a project led by Annemarie Ryu '13 (social anthropology) and Devon Ray Williams '11 (computer science).

Global Village Fruits essentially aims to market organic and fair-trade jackfruit products in the United States. Ryu came upon the nutritious fruit during a trip to Bangalore, India.

"I'm in a totally new place, trying to get a new phone; there are cows sitting in the street, and there are these huge green things sitting in piles," she recalls. She tried one, and says, "It was the most delicious thing ever."

Ryu and Williams hope that the dried fruit and the gluten-free flour ground from the seeds may find a market in American specialty food stores and bakeries. They plan to reinvest profits in the processing infrastructure in India.

While receiving the McKinley Award, Ryu announced that she had received an email from the Whole Foods supermarket just 2 days before, announcing that the chain would like to put the team's jackfruit products on its shelves in 28 northeastern stores.

TECH Prize

The $5,000 TECH Prize is awarded to the best senior project. The award this year went to Sophy Lee '12 (economics), who collaborated with Andrey Liscovich, a Ph.D. student in public policy, to create BigEd.

BigEd is a platform for online learning that aims to host universities' web-based courses and integrate them with tools that enhance the social experience of distance education.

One such feature creates a two-dimensional map of academic fields. Users can zoom into subfields and identify a "route" of real courses that might take them, for example, from precalculus to economic modeling. Another feature allows students to provide real-time feedback to an instructor giving a remote lecture.

Lee and Liscovich have also begun discussions with Wolfram Alpha with the goal of using Wolfram's natural language processing tools to automatically grade students' problem sets (in STEM fields).

Winning the award after having spent months developing BigEd, Liscovich says, "It's very helpful to have some assessment and reinforcement early on in the project so you know that other people also think it's worthwhile."

Sophy Lee '12 explains the goals of BigEd. Photo by Jon Chase, Harvard News Office.

Social Entrepreneurship Prize for Seniors

A $5,000 Social Entrepreneurship Prize, sponsored by The Coop, was awarded to Shreya Maheshwari '12 (economics), whose project Healthy U and Me is developing affordable educational materials to teach young Indian children about preventative health care.

Targeting particular rural areas that are known to be at high risk for malaria, cholera, and dengue fever, Maheshwari and her collaborators outside Harvard have been partnering with non-governmental organizations that understand the local communities and cultures.

The main challenge they face is to scale the successful model across a vast and diverse population.

Harvard Student Agencies (HSA) Award

HSA recognized PollVaultr, by Merrill Lutsky '15, Lexi Ross '13 (computer science), and Erik Schluntz '15.

Their project aims to implement short customer surveys at store checkouts to improve what is typically a low response rate and a negatively biased set of responses.

"It's simply too hard for a customer to enter a URL from a receipt," explains Lutsky. "We want to put the survey right in front of them at the point of sale."

The team hopes that surveys administered through PollVaultr will generate larger data sets and more balanced responses.

Merrill Lutsky '15 and Erik Schluntz '15 represented PollVaultr at the I3 finale. Photo by Jon Chase, Harvard News Office.

The six winning projects join a cadre of successful I3 "alumni" that has included Newsle, Styleta, HerCampus, and HSA Rover.

About I3

The Harvard College Innovation Challenge (I3) develops, showcases, and rewards innovative social, commercial, and public student ventures.

Students compete to win summer funding and space by submitting proposals and presenting their ideas to expert panels. The McKinley Family grants are awarded only to underclassmen; the TECH Prize is given to the best senior project.

To date, I3 has provided more than $550,000 in grants, as well as resources and office space, to innovative student projects.

Sponsorship this year was provided by:

Topics: Entrepreneurship