Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Crime-fighting platform wins President’s Challenge

6 min read

Nucleik, Flume, PlenOptika, and TerraTek share $100,000 to advance social ventures

Three Harvard College seniors will graduate from the University this spring with more than a college diploma; each will also carry the distinction of award-winning entrepreneur.

Today President Drew Faust named Team Nucleik the grand prize winner of the Harvard University President’s Challenge for social entrepreneurship, hosted by the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab). Faust developed the challenge last year to support students from across the University who were interested in developing entrepreneurial solutions to some of the world’s most important social problems. This year’s competitors tackled five topic areas: learning, energy and the environment, health, disaster preparation and relief, and the arts.

Team Nucleik will receive $70,000 to support its emerging business based on the software management information system team members developed while at Harvard for law enforcement officers.

“I spoke with the members of Team Nucleik earlier this month at the President’s Challenge Demo Day and was struck by their commitment to pursuing an idea and applying what they had learned in the classroom to improve the lives of others,” said Faust. “They’ve built a tool that will help law enforcement professionals better serve and protect communities across the country, and their inspiring work is something I will follow with great interest in the months and years ahead.”

On a field trip to Springfield, Mass., as part of Professor Kevin Kit Parker’s spring 2012 ES 96 engineering design seminar, the Nucleik team — computer science concentrators Scott Crouch, Florian Mayr, and Matthew Polega — saw firsthand the impact of violent crime and the everyday struggles of law enforcement officers handicapped by decades-old information management systems.

“Almost one and a half million gang members from 33,000 active gangs are responsible for 48 percent of the violent crime in the United States. We have a real problem with violent crime in the U.S., and technology can help solve it,” said Crouch. “There are many creative entrepreneurs — so many unbelievably talented people — out there, and they were all completely missing this issue.”

The system Nucleik developed provides instantaneous access to accurate and organized data to help law enforcement officers tackle gang violence, murders, and violent crime. It has been employed by the Special Projects Team of the Massachusetts State Police in Springfield, helping slash the time spent on office paperwork by 90 percent. The fledgling company is also in talks to launch the platform in several other major metropolitan police departments.

Three other student-led teams — Flume, PlenOptika and TerraTek — were recognized in the President’s Challenge for winning solutions to pervasive societal problems. Named runners-up in the competition, the teams tackled the complexity and potential behind understanding the human genome, the lack of affordable eye care in developing countries, and the challenges of registering for property rights and gaining access to public benefits in developing markets.

For the second year, Faust called on students from across the University to envision novel solutions to global problems that lack comprehensive answers. One hundred and twenty-seven student-led teams entered the competition, leveraging classroom learning and resources from the i-lab and across the University, as well as skills across disciplines, to develop unique solutions to problems that, like the teams themselves, are interdisciplinary in nature.

The three runners-up will each receive $10,000 to support the development of their ventures.

Team Flume is building a comprehensive and up-to-date map of the human genome through a crowdsourced webtool. Members hope access to their map will give researchers and clinicians information that provides comprehensive understanding of human biology, helping experts better understand diseases and supporting their efforts to fight them.

Team PlenOptika aims to distribute a device that can quickly test a person’s vision and provide the best off-the-shelf prescription. The project promises to bring adequate vision care to areas where professionals are in low supply. More than 1 billion people have poor vision because they don’t have the eyeglasses they need.

Team TerraTek is developing a two-sided platform that allows individuals to more easily secure property rights so they can obtain credit and other social benefits, and that assists governments of developing countries to expand their property rights databases to expand their revenue and plan more effectively. The team is launching the TerraTek platform this summer in Medellín, Colombia.

“The caliber of ideas that the judging committee considered this year was astounding, and it was very difficult for my fellow judges and me to choose from among the finalist teams — a wonderful problem to have in just the second year of the competition,” said Provost Alan M. Garber, co-chair of the judging committee.

“The members of the teams that split this year’s prize brought fresh perspectives and diverse backgrounds to tackle challenges related to crisis management, the environment, health, and learning. The range of issues they are addressing through their projects is a testament to the creativity and skills of students across the University — and to the success that follows when they connect with one another to identify and pursue common goals.”

Student teams took part in workshops and gained resources and mentoring to help build their skills. The 10 finalists named in March further developed their ideas with the expertise of handpicked mentors, tailored workshops, and $5,000 in seed money.

“The student teams met this year’s President’s Challenge with true passion,” said Gordon Jones, managing director of the i-lab. “There is an extra spark around their ideas that comes from firsthand experience, whether it be from ride-alongs with the State Police or seeing the impact of inadequate access to vision care in communities around the world. It is this spark that has fueled these teams to pursue and grow their ventures.”

Student learning throughout the challenge matched the scope of the ideas.

“I love being involved in all aspects of a real product; the ability to create something and watch it unfold in front of you is just so unique to entrepreneurship and that’s why I love doing it,” said Crouch. “It’s not about the money or the product, it’s about putting something you built in the hands of other people and watching it affect their lives. I would never have been an entrepreneur without the i-lab, having a central place where we could meet people who were like-minded and find the things that we needed to get our startup up and running.”