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Empowering future innovators through a social impact lens

The IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge helps students hone their entrepreneurship skills to create viable ventures for public good.
Five students converse around a whiteboard.
IDEAS participants iterate on their social innovations in a workshop during the spring semester.
Photo: Keyla Sanchez Tapia
Six students pose for a selfie.
IDEAS teams take a group photo at the IDEAS Awards Ceremony.
Photo: Sham Sthankiya
Three people having a conversation while standing at a table.
The Lyme Alert team talks with IDEAS supporters at the awards ceremony.
Photo: Sham Sthankiya

What if testing for Lyme disease were as simple as dropping a tick in a test tube at home, waiting a few minutes, and looking for a change of color?

MIT Sloan Fellow and physician Erin Dawicki is making it happen, as part of her aspiration to make Lyme testing accessible, affordable, and widespread. She noticed a troubling increase in undetected Lyme disease in her practice and collaborated with fellow MIT students to found Lyme Alert, a startup that has created the first truly at-home Lyme screening kit using nanotechnology.

Lyme Alert focuses on social impact in its mission to deliver faster diagnoses while using its technology to track disease spread. Participating in the 2024 IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge (IDEAS) helped the team refine their solution while keeping impact at the heart of their work. They ultimately won the top prize at the program’s award ceremony in the spring.

Over the past 23 years, IDEAS has fostered a community in which hundreds of entrepreneurial students have developed their innovation skills in collaboration with affected stakeholders, experienced entrepreneurs, and a supportive network of alumni, classmates, and mentors. The 14 teams in the 2024 IDEAS cohort join over 200 alumni teams — many still in operation today — that have received over $1.5 million in seed funding since 2001.

“IDEAS is a great example of experiential learning at MIT: empowering students to ask good questions, explore new frameworks, and propose sustainable interventions to urgent challenges alongside community partners," says Lauren Tyger, assistant dean of social innovation at the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center (PKG Center) at MIT.

As MIT’s premier social impact incubator housed within the PKG Center, IDEAS prepares students to take their early-stage ideas to the next level. Teams learn how to develop relationships with constituents affected by social issues, propose interventions that yield measurable impact, and create effective social enterprise models.

“This program undoubtedly opened my eyes to the intersection of social impact and entrepreneurship, fields I previously thought to be mutually exclusive,” says Srihitha Dasari, a rising junior in brain and cognitive sciences and co-founder of another award-winning team, PuntoSalud. “It not only provided me with vital skills to advance my own interests in the startup ecosystem, but expanded my network in order to enact change.”

Shaping the “leaders of tomorrow”

Over the course of one semester, IDEAS teams participate in iterative workshops, refine their ideas with mentors, and pitch their solutions to peers and judges. The process helps students transform their concepts into social innovations in health care, finance, climate, education, and many more fields.

The program culminates in an awards ceremony at the MIT Museum, where teams share their final products. This year’s showcase featured a keynote address from Christine Ortiz, professor of materials science and engineering. Her passion for socially-directed science and technology aligns with IDEAS’ focus on social impact.

“I was grateful to be a part of the journey for these 14 teams,” Ortiz says. “IDEAS speaks to the core of what MIT needs: innovators capable of thinking critically about problems within their communities.”

Five teams are selected for awards of $6,000 to $20,000 by a group of experts across a variety of industries who volunteer as judges, and two additional award grants of $2,500 are given to teams that received the most votes through the MIT Solve initiative’s IDEAS virtual showcase.

The teams that received awards this year are: Lyme Alert, which created the first truly at-home tick testing kit for Lyme disease; My Sister’s Keeper, which aims to establish a professional leadership incubator designed specifically for Muslim immigrant women in the United States; Sakhi - Simppl, which created a WhatsApp chatbot that generates responses grounded in accurate, verified knowledge from international health agencies; BendShelters, which provides sustainable, modular, and easily deployable bamboo shelters for displaced populations in Myanmar, a Southeast Asian country under a dictatorship; PuntoSalud, an AI-powered virtual health messaging system that delivers personalized, trustworthy information sourced directly from local hospitals in Argentina; ONE Community, which provides a digital network through which businesses in India at risk of displacement can connect with more customers and partners to ensure sustained and resilient growth; and Mudzi Cooking Project, a social enterprise tackling the challenges faced by women in Chisinga, Malawi, who struggle to access firewood.

As a member of the Science Hub, the PKG Center worked with corporate partner Amazon, which sponsored the top five awards for the first time in 2024. The inaugural Amazon Prizes for Social Good honored the teams’ efforts to use tech to solve social issues.

“Clearly, these students are inspired to give rather than to take, and their work distinguishes them all as the leaders of tomorrow,” says Tye Brady, chief technologist at Amazon Robotics.

All of the teams will refine their ideas over the summer and report back by the start of the next academic year. Additionally, for a period of 16 months the teams that won awards will continue to receive guidance from the PKG Center and a founder support network with the 2023 group of IDEAS grantees.

Tapping MIT’s innovation ecosystem

IDEAS is just one of the PKG Center’s programs that provide opportunities for students to focus on social impact. In tandem with other Institute resources for student innovators, PKG enables students to apply their innovation skills to solve real-world problems while supporting community-informed solutions to systemic challenges.

“The PKG Center is a valued partner in enabling the growing numbers of students who aspire to create impact-focused ventures,” says Don Shobrys, director of MIT Venture Mentoring Service.

In order to make those ventures successful, Tyger explains, “IDEAS teaches students frameworks to deeply understand the systems around a challenge, get to know who’s already addressing it, find gaps, and then design and implement something that will uniquely and sustainably address the challenge. Rather than optimizing for profit alone, IDEAS helps students learn how to optimize for what can produce the most social good or reduce the most harm.”

Tyger notes that although IDEAS’ emphasis on social impact is somewhat unique, it is complemented by MIT’s rich entrepreneurship ecosystem. “There are many resources and people who are incredibly generous with their time — and who above all do it because they know we are all supporting the growth of students,” she says.

This year’s program partners included MIT Sandbox and Arts Startup Incubator, which co-hosted informational sessions for applicants in the fall; BU Law ClinicD-Lab, and Systems-Awareness Lab leaders, who served as guest speakers throughout the spring; Venture Mentoring Service, which matched teams with mentors; entrepreneurs-in-residence from the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, who judged final pitches and advised teams; DesignX and the Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT (formerly the Legatum Center), which provided additional support to several teams; MIT Solve, which hosted the teams on their voting platform; and MIT Innovation HQ, which provided space for students to meet one another and exchange ideas.

While IDEAS projects are designed to be a means of transformative change for public good, many students say that the program is transformative for them, as well. “Before IDEAS, I didn’t see myself as an innovator — just someone passionate about solving a problem that I’d heard people facing across diseases,” reflects Anika Wadhera, a rising senior in biological engineering and co-founder of Chronolog Health, a platform revolutionizing chronic illness management. “Now I feel much more confident in my ability to actually make a difference by better understanding the different stakeholders and the factors that are necessary to make a transformative solution.”

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