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Eight teams win IDEAS awards

Grants will support efforts in developing nations

At an awards ceremony Monday night for MIT's annual IDEAS contest, eight teams were awarded prizes of up to $7,500 each for their efforts to create business ventures that could address pressing needs in the world's developing countries.

This year's competition saw a big increase in the number of entries, said its co-founder Amy Smith, a senior lecturer and creator of the D-Lab program at MIT. Thirty-five teams, each of them including at least one MIT student, vied for this year's awards, up from about 25 last year, Smith said.

The competition includes a special category, called the Muhammad Yunus Innovation Challenge to Alleviate Poverty, for projects aimed at tackling a specific issue in the developing world. This year's Yunus Challenge centered on affordable, small-scale energy solutions.

Two of the winning entries addressed this challenge, with projects to provide electricity in rural areas not currently served by electric grids. One is based on a fuel cell powered by dirt -- or, more accurately, by the microbes living in dirt. The device can be made for under $20, can be used to power lights or radios or to charge cellphones, and can provide power for months on end, says mechanical engineering graduate student Aviva Presser, leader of the team called Lebônê, which holds a patent on the technology.

The other power source, by a team called EGG, would use conventional rechargeable battery technology with a new distribution system. The batteries would be charged centrally, whether in a place where grid power is available or from solar panels or other sources, and provide them to local users on a rental basis. After paying an affordable annual fee, the user then returns the depleted batteries to a central location to be swapped for a fully charged set. The system will be tested in Tanzania. The team consists of five students from MIT and three from Harvard Business School.

Among the other winners was team called Aquaport, which created an ingenious modular water-transportation system to save the time and effort of carrying jugs of water, usually balanced on women's heads, home from central wells. The system consists of molded disk-shaped tanks that snap together to form a larger drum shape, which then is fitted with an axle and a handle allowing it to be rolled along the ground instead of being lifted and carried. The system, costing less than $40, will be tested this summer in rural Ghana.

As for the quality of the water itself, that issue is addressed by a winning entry from a team called the Global Citizen Water Initiative. This open-source system will allow local users to order water test kits and then input the information into a location-based database that can provide information on water quality, both for the community and for public health officials and researchers.

Two different winning teams aim to provide help for the visually impaired. One winner was the 6-dot Braille labeler, a device that allows blind or visually impaired people to easily type labels that can be attached to objects such as food cans or boxes, allowing them to be identified quickly. The labeler, initially developed last fall as a project in the 2.009 product design class, will be licensed for manufacture sometime this summer, said team leader Karina Pikhart. Another winner is the Seeing Machine, a portable device that translates images from a digital camera or other source into a simplified form that can be beamed directly into the eye, bypassing distorting effects in the lens. The device is about to go into clinical trials.

A team called Business and Life Skills School (BLISS) is seeking to promote education and eliminate child labor among refugees in Pakistan. School attendance rates are low there because of the costs and local perceptions that the education is not useful. The team plans to introduce a curriculum that teaches useful skills, as well as hands-on afterschool activity that could cover the costs of education.

Finally, a team called Heatsource is developing a phase-change material for the Himalayan region. The material, made from local fabrics and readily obtained paraffin, can be used for clothing or bedrolls. Recharged in the sun, the material can then provide warmth for an extended period.

The winning teams will all take part in a two-day retreat later this month to further develop their plans.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 13, 2009 (download PDF).

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