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IDEAS awards offer a ‘launching point’ for ventures

Social entrepreneurs take home thousands of dollars from the IDEAS Global Challenge to help launch startups, develop inventions.
David Young of Bounce Imaging got a high-five from an audience member after he and co-founder Francisco Aguilar (behind) were announced as recipients of the $5,000 prize.
David Young of Bounce Imaging got a high-five from an audience member after he and co-founder Francisco Aguilar (behind) were announced as recipients of the $5,000 prize.
Photo: Ben Bocko
Kevin Cedrone of Augmented Infant Resuscitator.
Kevin Cedrone of Augmented Infant Resuscitator.
Photo: Ben Bocko
From left, Aleem Ahmed and Kaia Lai of Love Grain.
From left, Aleem Ahmed and Kaia Lai of Love Grain.
Photo: Ben Bocko

The MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, organizers say, was founded in 2001 to help student-led teams make their humanitarian ventures a reality — through annual competition. And at its 12th annual awards ceremony, held Thursday evening, IDEAS presented 13 social enterprises a total of $72,000 to help develop startups and innovations that aim to solve issues such as infant mortality, pollution and unfair wages.

“Tonight we see as a launching point not just for sustainable impact, but also many promising ventures,” Kate Mytty, program administrator for IDEAS, said in opening the ceremony.

Ten teams chosen by a panel of expert judges took home prizes of $5,000, $7,500 and $10,000. Three other teams, whose projects won the most online votes, received Community Choice Awards of $1,500 each. Each winning team delivered a brief presentation upon receiving its award.

The teams — 41 semifinalists in total — were comprised of MIT affiliates and others, represented seven different categories: water; emergency and disaster; health; energy and environment; education; finance and entrepreneurship; and agriculture.

Top prizes

Two teams took home $10,000 prizes: Augmented Infant Resuscitator (AIR), a maker of resuscitation devices, and Love Grain, a fair-trade food company.

AIR developer Kevin Cedrone SM ’10 built his prototype from spare lab parts in just one night after learning that nearly 2 million infants worldwide die annually from breathing-related problems, mostly in developing countries.

His prototype attaches to ventilation equipment and measures the rate and pressure of air entering an infant’s lungs. It also signals if users need to speed up or slow down air delivery, or correct the mask seal, among other things. The aim is to provide real-time feedback and long-term data to help improve resuscitation quality, technique, training and equipment.

“You take this data, these very low-cost measurements, and turn them into high-value judgments: Is what I’m doing going to save this baby’s life?” he said. “This is a case where cheap measurements become really powerful levers to do things like saving infant lives.”

With the IDEAS funds, Cedrone said, his team will travel to Uganda for clinical trials.

Love Grain — co-founded by Aleem Ahmed, Caroline Mauldin and Kaia Lai, all students at the MIT Sloan School of Management — aims to benefit Ethiopian farmers by helping them tap into the multibillion-dollar gluten-free market. 

Their plan is to supply Ethiopian farmers with seed and fertilizer to grow a grain, teff, that Love Grain will then purchase from the farmers and ship to the United States to be made into gluten-free baking mixes, cereals and pastas. Profits will go toward buying more seed and fertilizer for the farmers.

“We believe we are changing the value chain to value cycle,” said Ahmed, an MBA student. “This is a model that can be replicated in other countries for farmers facing similar challenges around the world.”

Love Grain team members will use their IDEAS funds to travel to Ethiopia with an initial delivery of seed and fertilizer for farmers.

Wide variety of innovations

Additional teams represented a wide variety of innovative ideas, including microbial power generators, waste-management and recycling technology, and even a water-bottle-sharing program.

One $7,500 winner, ReFresh, was described by its co-founder, MBA student Sean Grundy, as “the Redbox for beverages.” The project allows someone to check out a reusable water bottle from a vending machine and return it to any other machine, which will sanitize the bottle for reuse. The project aims to reduce the pollution and waste associated with disposable water bottles, Grundy said.

Two other MIT Sloan students — David Young and Francisco Aguilar — took home $5,000 for their Bounce Imaging Explorer. Their working prototype is a ball with a built-in camera and sensors that can be thrown into a hazardous space — say, a burning building, a disaster area or a room occupied by gunmen — to transmit panoramic images to a mobile device.

“Every day, leaders face the dilemma of whether to send their teams into dangerous spaces or risk failing a mission if they don’t,” said Young, who served in the U.S. Army. “The inability to see around the corner or into space costs lives. … We remain dedicated to saving these lives.”

With the IDEAS funds, Young said, the team plans to field-test their device with police partners.

Other juried prizes went to teams called PolymerGreen, BlueLight, Increasing Rural Farmers Income, The Universe and More, Hope in Flight, and Biobatts. Three other teams received Community Choice Awards: EducateSyria, LabX, and Aasadeep Projects.

Long-lasting impact

Since 2001, IDEAS has awarded more than $500,000 to roughly 100 teams that have implemented innovative service projects in 28 countries. These teams have secured more than $7 million in additional funding, with more than half still active in some way.

For instance, Assured Labor, a 2008 IDEAS winner that spun out of the Media Lab, is now a multimillion-dollar employment-resource company for Nicaragua and Mexico. OttoClave, a 2012 winner co-founded by MIT mechanical engineering alumni, has secured more than $200,000 to bring sterilizing autoclaves to low-income nations.

The co-founders of Essmart Global, a technology-distribution company in India that took a top IDEAS prize last year, spoke at the ceremony, saying IDEAS was vital in helping them grow from a small pilot venture into a lucrative business that now sells hundreds of products and has partnered with 70 retail shops.

“The IDEAS grant was absolutely instrumental: It enabled us to really kick things off,” said Taylor Matthews, a former MIT Sloan student who co-founded the company with Diana Jue ’09, MCP ’12.

In her closing remarks, IDEAS co-founder Amy Smith spoke about how MIT students, and others, have helped advance the ideals of IDEAS, which stands for Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action and Service.

“Over the years, we continue to be amazed and impressed with where MIT students will take these ideals,” said Smith, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering. “All the teams here … have come up with an incredibly diverse array of how your passions can make the world a better place.”

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