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Grad student-run contest spurs Filipino entrepreneurs

Roughly 1,000 people a day leave the Philippines to work abroad, Neil Ruiz, a Ph.D. candidate in political science, told a small crowd gathered in Wong Auditorium on Thursday, Dec. 8.

The talk, "Uncommon Solutions to Common Problems" highlighted the work that Ruiz and a dedicated team of graduate students have done in the past year with the Philippine Emerging Startups Open (PESO), a technology and innovation-oriented business plan competition modeled after the annual MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition.

"I had the privilege of being exposed to a plethora of opportunities compared to my relatives who were left behind," said Ruiz, whose parents came to the United States before he was born.

In spring 2004, Ruiz applied for a Public Service Center (PSC) summer fellowship. Ruiz's goal was to go to the Philippines and find a way to combat the "brain drain" plaguing the country.

"His aim was to mobilize students at MIT and transform the Filipino climate," Sally Susnowitz, director of the PSC, told the audience. The PSC encouraged Ruiz to use his fellowship to gather other resources, and Susnowitz said she was impressed when he used the time to "get big things started."

In the Philippines and after he returned, Ruiz and other PESO members secured additional funding from academic, business, industry, nonprofit and government agencies all over the Philippines to get the contest off the ground.

The 10 current PESO members at MIT and five partners in the Philippines advertised in and around Filipino colleges and universities hoping to spark some interest in the competition. Their persistence worked, and 2005 marked the first official competition.

More than 70 teams submitted business plans, said Ruiz, who added he was amazed by the response. "We would have been happy with 20 submissions."

Roughly 24 percent of the teams had at least one Ph.D.-level member, said Ruiz. Ideas were submitted in a number of categories including biotech, information technology, process and manufacturing, agriculture and more.

On Dec. 4, in the Philippines, the Ayala Foundation Grand Prize 2005 went to Enhanced Solo, a team that developed a papaya with a cultured resistance to papaya ring spot virus. The virus plagues crops in the Philippines, causing papayas to ripen too quickly, thus limiting papaya production and creating big losses for small farmers. The team developed seedlings with a delayed ripening trait that allows for export.

The winner received 80,000 Philippine pesos, roughly $1,500, as well as continued help from PESO in developing and marketing its product. Sponsored prizes were awarded in six other categories as well, including the ICCP Venture Partners Best Service Prize, which went to Sanitary Aqua Vendo for developing a water vending machine capable of providing clean water for public restrooms. Poor water quality is responsible for a number of problems in the Philippines.

"PESO is a huge success," said Susnowitz. This past spring, PESO received the PSC's award for best new service project.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 14, 2005 (download PDF).

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