A device toolkit that makes STEM education truly engaging, a mobile app for helping small businesses in emerging markets improve their performance, and a startup that’s revolutionizing the treatment of ear infections were awarded the three top prizes in the seventh annual President’s Innovation Challenge showcase and awards ceremony at the Harvard Innovation Labs.
President Drew Faust awarded each of the three student ventures, STEMgem, OZÉ, and PionEar, with $75,000 in prize money from the Bertarelli Foundation to help them turn their ideas into impactful, real-world ventures.
“Thank you for coming here, using these resources, and devoting your time to the principles of innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Faust to a room of hundreds of Harvard students on Wednesday.
“When you decide to take a risk to enter a contest, to join together in a collaboration, to try to have a big dream — that is the kind of risk that is at the heart of everything that is represented here,” she added.
The President’s Innovation Challenge is open to any Harvard student or postdoc across the 12 Harvard Schools. This year, a record 460 teams entered the competition — more than double the previous year. Teams competed across three tracks — Social Impact or Cultural Enterprise, Health or Life Science, and Open Track for ideas that transcended categories. All 15 finalists showcased their products and services at the event, and gave one-minute pitches onstage prior to Faust announcing the winners.
In her remarks, Jodi Goldstein, executive director of the Harvard Innovation Labs, talked about the importance of the President’s Innovation Challenge as a catalyst for bringing together students from across Harvard to explore innovation and entrepreneurship.
“In today’s world, the sensibilities of entrepreneurship are increasingly requisite whether you are an entrepreneur or not,” said Goldstein. “The ability to take risk, to persevere, to evolve, to lead, and to collaborate in ways that create more value for more people matters whether you are a manager in a Fortune 500 company or starting a startup.”
Three runners-up, which received $25,000 in prizes, were FinWeGo, a workplace financial wellness platform that helps employers provide affordable and convenient credit to their employees; Jump Credit, helping nonprofits provide free, instant, personalized credit advice to economically vulnerable clients; and X-Cor Therapeutics, which is working on a cheaper and safer extracorporeal CO2 removal (ECCOR) therapy for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Based on an audience vote, the second annual Crowd Favorite prize of $10,000 was given to Mozambique School Lunch Initiative, which is investing in community-owned school lunch programs to improve childhood nutrition in Mozambique.
OZÉ CEO Meghan McCormick, winner of the Social Impact or Cultural Enterprise $75,000 grand prize, said, “We have wonderful developers and sales people working for us in Ghana and Nigeria. Being able to fund their work for many months to come is incredibly helpful.”
PionEar co-founder Ida Pavlichenko, winner of the grand prize in the Health or Life Science category, said, “Winning the President’s Innovation Challenge will play a significant role in helping us commercialize our product.”
STEMgem CEO and co-founder Eva-Maria Olbers, whose venture was named first place in the Open Track, added, “We want to have as much impact on teenage girls’ lives as possible, and get them engaged as quickly and effectively as possible. Winning the President’s Innovation Challenge is a great honor, and will help us achieve our goals.”
This year, prizes for the President’s Innovation Challenge were exclusively funded by the Bertarelli Foundation, which announced the President’s Innovation Challenge Fund in October 2017 to support the winners of the competition for the next five years. This gift extends the Bertarelli Foundation’s previous backing of student-led ventures at Harvard, which began in 2013 when the foundation funded the Deans’ Health and Life Sciences Challenge at the Harvard Innovation Labs.
“Bringing students together from diverse backgrounds and industries to solve complex global challenges has the power to change millions of people’s lives,” said Ernesto Bertarelli, co-chair of the Bertarelli Foundation. “We’re therefore delighted to partner with the Harvard Innovation Labs and to have established the Bertarelli Prize Fund for the winners of the President’s Challenge. I look forward to seeing what the winning ventures from 2018 accomplish in the years to come.”
“We like to think that the Harvard Innovation Labs and the President’s Innovation Challenge are perhaps the greatest manifestations of the idea of One Harvard,” Goldstein said. “Each and every day people engage in our community not as members of their Schools but as people who share a passion and desire to build meaningful businesses and to help each other along the way.”
“There are no walls or towers to scale,” she added. “There is just one community built on an understanding that we are all in this together.”