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IDEAS winners aim to improve the world’s “quality of life”

Contest awards thousands of dollars to 13 teams tackling environmental and health challenges in developing countries.
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(From left) Keely Swan, along with Natasha Wright, David Taylor, and Marcelo DeCastro of CleanData-CleanWater
(From left) Keely Swan, along with Natasha Wright, David Taylor, and Marcelo DeCastro of CleanData-CleanWater
Photo: Yuri Vaysgant
Group shot of all the 2014 IDEAS Global Challenge winners
Group shot of all the 2014 IDEAS Global Challenge winners
Photo: Yuri Vaysgant

The annual MIT IDEAS Global Challenge awards ceremony awarded $79,500 on Monday night to 13 student-led teams to further develop inventions and ideas intended to solve pressing environmental and health challenges in developing countries.

“Today marks an important opportunity for emerging entrepreneurs to take a big leap forward in their journey to improve the quality of life in communities around the world,” Keely Swan, the Public Service Center's IDEAS Global Challenge program administrator, said in her welcoming remarks.

Launched and run by MIT students, the winning ventures took home prizes of $10,000, $7,500, $5,000, and $1,500, to further support prototyping and field-testing, among other things.

CleanData-CleanWater, a $10,000 winner last night, plans to use its earnings to manufacture 1,000 of its sensors, which gather previously unavailable data on water filter usage in developing countries.

The sensors fit on a filter’s tap and track how long the tap stays up or down, measuring the frequency and duration of use. The company plans to integrate the sensors into a new line of ceramic pot water filters being installed across Ghana by the company Pure Home Water, a previous IDEAS winner.

If broadly implemented, the sensors could help inventors and investors gauge the effectiveness of thousands of filters worldwide, said Natasha Wright, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. “We hope to transform the way clean water is delivered across the developing world,” she said in accepting her team’s prize.

Three other $10,000 prizes went to Protoprint, GridForm, and Eagle Health. Two other teams — Disease Diagnostic Group and EcoCoils — earned $7,500, while four others — Recon Therapeutics, mHealth India, Du’Anyam, and Kanoot — earned $5,000. Community Choice Awards of $1,500 went to MyH2O, Ways2Clean, and Ghana: Science in Action, which won the most online votes.

The 38 semifinalist teams competed in seven categories: water; emergency and disaster; health; energy and environment; education; finance and entrepreneurship; and agriculture. Judges from MIT, government agencies, nonprofits, and industry weighed each team’s innovation, feasibility, business planning, and potential community impact in deciding the winners.

Empowering the people

Several winning teams developed innovative technologies and models to empower people in developing countries to earn money and improve their communities and lives.  

For instance, Protoprint, founded by Sidhant Pai, an MIT senior studying civil and environmental engineering, trains impoverished waste-pickers in India to use compact recycling machines that convert HDPE plastics (such as shampoo bottles) into commercial filament for 3-D printing.

Pickers, who usually sell these plastics to scrap dealers for about $1 per day, instead bring the products to a station, where they’re shredded. The remaining flakes pass through a device that uses a rotating heating mechanism to extrude plastic into filament that Protoprint then uses to 3-D print consumer products — in the process, earning pickers 15 times more than selling to scrap dealers. With its prize money, Protoprint aims to improve its recycling bots and train up to 50 waste-pickers at a pilot site in Pune, India.

EcoCoil is developing mosquito-repellent coils made of char, instead of biomass, reducing emissions by 90 percent. The team distributes low-cost kilns to farmers, who burn agricultural waste to produce the char — which the farmers, in turn, sell to EcoCoil.

Software created by GridForm gives organizations tools to optimize microgrid installation in rural India, where roughly 300 million people lack access to electricity and there’s little data — such as on house size and location — to guide efficient microgrid installation.

GridForm’s software uses image analysis and machine learning algorithms to scan massive satellite images and extract information on homes and roads, in thousands of villages, in less than an hour — and then creates models for optimal grid layout and design.

“We can actually map out thousands of villages, help companies identify those villages that are most exciting, and optimize the topography of that village before ever swinging a hammer,” said Brian Spatocco, a PhD student in materials science and engineering.

With its prize money, the team will travel to Karnataka, India, to deploy a rural microgrid with its partner SELCO, a local energy company.

Other teams empowering individuals include Du’Anyam, which gives pregnant Indonesian women an alternative to farming by training them in basket weaving. Eagle Health, the final top-prize winner, is developing wearable rings that use inexpensive sensors and a custom algorithm to analyze heart rate data to diagnose and monitor the progression of diabetes.

Long road to lasting impact

Since its 2001 founding, the IDEAS competition, sponsored by the Public Service Center, has awarded more than $600,000 to more than 100 teams that have implemented innovative service projects in 41 countries, impacting hundreds of thousands of lives. These teams have secured more than $14 million in additional funding, with many having a substantial impact around the world.

A 2012 winner of $7,500 was WeCyclers, which employs a fleet of cargo bicycles to collect recyclables across Lagos, Nigeria. The firm has removed more than 160 tons of waste, created 31 jobs, and registered more than 4,500 households.

The Kanchan Arsenic Filter, a 2002 winner that removes arsenic from potable water, has reached more than 350,000 Nepalis — and earned a grant this year to bring larger units to 20 schools. Assured Labor, a 2008 winner, is now a multimillion-dollar employment-resource company in Nicaragua and Mexico.

Representatives of several of these previous IDEAS winners were on hand last night to present awards and discuss how they’ve used the prize money to grow their enterprises.

But Karina Pikhart, whose 6Dot braille label-maker (now a commercial product) won a $7,500 IDEAS prize in 2009, stressed the long road to commercialization, which is rife with fundraising and business challenges.

“Today seems like a climax, a finale, but it’s really just the beginning. I wish I had that perspective when I was out there five years ago,” Pikhart said. “So I encourage you to hold fast and fight hard. It’s going to be long, but if you dream, you’ll get there.”

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