Campus & Community

Finalists selected in President’s Challenge

6 min read

10 teams develop solutions to pressing problems in learning, health, energy & environment, disaster preparation & relief, and the arts

Harvard University today announced the selection of 10 teams of finalists in the 2013 President’s Challenge for social entrepreneurship.

“The President’s Challenge encourages students from across the University to unleash their creativity, apply their knowledge, and turn their ideas into solutions to the world’s most pressing problems,” said President Drew Faust, who created the challenge last year. “The 10 finalist teams have demonstrated extraordinary ingenuity and commitment, and I look forward to seeing their projects evolve over the course of the semester.”

Teams of students and postdoctoral fellows were asked to focus on problems in one of five areas: learning, health, energy and environment, disaster preparation and relief, or the arts. The proposals from finalists ranged from an online platform supporting law enforcement agents in the disruption of criminal networks to a venture dedicated to the invention of original artistic works about personal genetics and health.

This year’s President’s Challenge finalists were selected from a pool of 127 applications by a panel of Harvard faculty and alumni, organized by judging committee co-chairs Provost Alan Garber and William Sahlman, the Dimitri V. D’Arbeloff — MBA Class of 1955 Professor of Business Administration.

“In the second year of the challenge, even more students are proposing impressive projects that can have a dramatic impact in the world,” said Garber. “As the i-lab [Innovation Lab] has taken root in the entrepreneurial community, these student teams are tapping into available resources and exploring their own creativity, and their ideas are flourishing as a result.”

“These teams brought their thoughtfulness and passion to create ideas with the potential for far-reaching impact on people here and across the world,” said Sahlman.

Each finalist team will receive a $5,000 grant and dedicated space in the i-lab, and be paired with an expert mentor to further develop their solutions.  One winner and up to three runners-up will be announced in late May.

The teams represent a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. Each of the University’s Schools was represented by at least one team leader, and most teams have members from several Schools.

Teams were selected from each category, with more finalists in the learning and health categories based on the volume of submissions in those fields. The finalist teams are:

In the learning category

Empowerment Through Integration is an outreach program that seeks to encourage disadvantaged, blind youth to explore and achieve their career goals while combating the social stigma against blindness. The idea was borne out of founder Sara Minkara’s experiences as a legally blind person in Lebanon, and the alarming disparities she found in the support provided for the blind in different countries around the world.

Zen Way Inc. strives to disrupt the standardized test preparation market and higher-education application processes by offering free and low-cost tools for online self-guided study. Their tool, based on an algorithm, personalizes the test prep experience, starting with the LSAT, for standardized test-takers. It aims to increase access to high-quality educational material regardless of the user’s financial resources.

Flume is a Web tool to crowdsource expertise from participants around the world and at all levels of expertise to build and maintain a highly detailed, current map of the human genome. Users will have a better understanding of the genome and enable a more open scientific community benefiting academic research, industrial applications, and biological education.

In the health category

Healio is a mobile app that allows doctors to remotely monitor their patients’ wound-healing progress through a detailed, time-lapse pictorial record, enabling medical care providers to maintain a higher quality of care while reducing the number of costly follow-up visits.

PlenOptika is a venture producing a low-cost handheld device that prescribes glasses with the click of a button, removing one barrier — the acute shortage of trained professionals — to obtaining appropriate eyeglasses in remote or low-income areas.

Quantamerix is a group inventing a low-cost diagnostic device that will eliminate the need for large centralized labs to process the millions of newborn screenings that are skipped every day. Currently only one in four newborns worldwide is tested for easily treatable diseases, and Quantamerix wants to dramatically raise that number.

In the arts category

Kartis is an interactive social Web platform coupling mapping with a social network to overcome barriers to collaboration. The real-time map of the nonprofit sector will show where current needs are being served, where they are unmet, and where collaboration between complementary services could be fostered to maximize impact and increase the efficiency of delivering aid.

Sightline Productions is a group of artists, scientists, and educators who are passionate about creating impact through the production and sharing of original artistic works focused on genetics and health. By bringing people’s stories to life, they hope to impact both those who have something to tell and something to learn.

In the energy and environment category

TerraTek is a social enterprise that focuses on helping individuals, municipalities, and communities determine their existing land rights in a transparent and secure manner, to settle disputes and map and organize property rights in developing countries.

In the disaster preparation and relief category

Nucleik has developed an online information management system that reduces the time law enforcement spends on information collection, management, analysis, and reporting by 90 percent, giving police officers more time to protect neighborhoods. For more than six months, Nucleik’s system has been used with successful results in Springfield, Mass. (a city experiencing gang-related problems), and by the Massachusetts State Police.

On May 6, the finalists will present their ideas to the local and Harvard communities at Demo Day. The grand prize winner and runners-ups will be announced by Faust in late May, when they will take home a share in the $100,000 purse. They will continue their residency at the i-lab, with dedicated workspace, mentoring, and access to expert resources throughout the summer.

The President’s Challenge is one of three challenges hosted by the i-lab. Applications for the Deans’ Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge and Deans’ Health and Life Sciences Challenge are in the final stages of the initial judging rounds.

“It’s so inspiring to see so many student teams coming from across disciplines to leverage each other’s strengths with the common goal of effecting real change both locally and globally,” said Gordon Jones, managing director of the i-lab. “The high level of student participation across the three challenges shows that the entrepreneurial presence within the Harvard student community is strong and growing.

“The challenges represent a great opportunity for students to test their ideas while still in an academic environment. We are working to resource these and all Harvard students in growing their ventures and adding skills to their professional tool kits to take forward into their careers,” Jones added.