Cambridge, Mass. – March 9, 2011 – Student entrepreneurs in Harvard have won $50,000 in grants to support further development of innovative ventures in the Harvard College Innovation Challenge (I3).
Five teams were selected as winners and runners-up from an applicant pool of 84 teams—double the number of hopefuls in last year’s contest—for projects ranging from social web applications to a new environmental engineering technology.
“This was our most competitive year ever,” says Paul Bottino, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH), which is based at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “We had 222 students from over 30 concentrations submit outstanding proposals, which makes for a very difficult selection process. All the semifinalists should be proud.”
“This is a big vote of confidence for them—and of course for the winners—from our 50-plus judges who dug into their proposals and probed their live presentations to select the most innovative ideas,” Bottino adds.
The grants were announced at the I3 Student Startup Showcase and Awards Reception on March 8 at the Radcliffe Gym, where 26 semifinalist teams discussed their nascent projects with a mingling crowd of students, family members, entrepreneurs, and potential investors.
The I3 competition, presented by TECH and Harvard Student Agencies Inc. (HSA), awarded grants in three categories this year:
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. Two winning teams are receiving $10,000 this year, and 5 finalists will also receive $500 each.
One winner, Newsle, is a web application that aggregates news and status updates from friends or public figures on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other sites. Developed by Jonah Varon and Axel Hansen, both concentrating in Computer Science at SEAS, the app uses an algorithm that can distinguish between people with the same name and prioritize the most important news.
The team hopes to find a market for it in alumni affairs offices and in corporate spheres for use in background checks and reputation management.
“We’re really trying to brand it as ‘People as the atomic unit of news,'” says Hansen.
Though the site is still in beta, it is already tracking more than a million people and was profiled in group-edited blog TechCrunch in January.
The other winner in the commercial category is Hollre, an application that helps people connect online about their activities in the real world. Focused on action rather than just location, the app is designed to help users find new things to do, whether they’re interested in parties, knitting, protests, or study groups.
Hollre’s developers are Ryan Neff (Engineering Sciences), Yasha Iravantchi (Engineering Sciences), Mark Singh (History), and William Marks (Engineering Sciences).
“We’re the who, the what, and the where,” says Marks. The Hollre team has patents pending and is working to promote the site in universities across the country. “The exposure to the VC and entrepreneurship community is invaluable,” Marks adds.
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.
Aid Aide, a web site that guides prospective college students through the process of applying for federal financial aid, won the $10,000 prize this year.
The site, created by first-year Zachary Hamed, is designed to work like tax software, simplifying the questions on the FAFSA and PROFILE application forms. It can also translate the content for students or parents who do not read English, and it can support live chats with financial advisers.
Hamed, who struggled to complete the applications for federal aid as a senior in high school, says 3 in 10 students have their FAFSA applications denied due to mistakes in completing the form.
“I submitted 10 applications to college; I did it all myself,” he says, “but then I got to this, and I said, ‘Dad, we have to sit down.'”
Due to federal laws that protect personal financial information online, Hamed needs to build bank-level security into his site. He plans to use the McKinley grant primarily to hire a programmer who can do that.
TECH Prize (sponsored by North Bridge Venture Partners)
The TECH Prize is awarded to the best senior or graduate-student team. The $10,000 award this year went to Bynamic Edge’s Multi-Functional Microbial Reactor, an environmental technology that uses electricity to manipulate the metabolism of bacteria so that they break down harmful chemicals in wastewater or natural gas supplies.
Created by George Ye, a Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering, and his teammates Brock Forrest, Raffi Mardirosian, Pierce Schiller, and James Wang, the project currently exists as a theoretical model backed up by laboratory data. The team hopes to build a prototype next and then scale it up, and will work with a local landfill to test it.
The runner-up for the TECH prize was W.I.S.E. Words Magazine, which will receive a $2,500 grant.
The magazine, run by Julia Tartaglia (Human Evolutionary Biology), Amy Tai (Computer Science), and Fiona Wood (Computer Science), provides articles, advice, videos, and information on job openings to women embarking on careers in science or engineering.
Before actively seeking female mentors, Tartaglia says, “I found that I had trouble visualizing myself as a scientist, because all of my role models were men.”
The magazine aims to connect female students with established professionals and promote direct communication and mentoring.
“The diversity and caliber of projects we’ve seen in this year’s Innovation Challenge are testaments to the thriving spirit of innovation at Harvard and to the creative force of young people,” says Bottino. “Nights like these put sunshine in your view of the future.”