The world may be complicated and full of problems — but the 37 teams of students in this year’s MIT IDEAS Global Challenge each envisioned a way to make it better.
Now in its 11th year, the IDEAS Global Challenge recognized 13 of those teams at its annual awards celebration — “the Oscars of social impact at MIT,” in the words of Alison Hynd, one of the award presenters — on Thursday evening in the Stata Center. Teams were awarded a total of $72,500 in juried awards, with individual awards ranging from $5,000 to $10,000.
Bridging gaps
Three other teams whose projects won the most online votes — Samanvai Green Products, Smart COOPS and IndianRaga — received Community Choice Awards of $1,500. Upon receiving awards, team members stepped to the podium to give brief overviews of their projects.
MIT junior Srikanth Bolla won funding for Samanvai Green Products, a company that would employ some of the 50 million people in India with multiple disabilities. Born visually challenged, Bolla knows firsthand how hard it is to overcome the stigmas and lack of training resources for disabled people. “I was one of the victims, but I could break all the barriers and reach MIT,” he said. “There are millions of people who lack this opportunity.”
Smart COOPS and IndianRaga each won Community Choice Awards for their plans to connect people with resources they need. Smart COOPS aims to link farmers with banks using a mobile app, hoping that if both sides have more information, banks can help farmers succeed by offering them lower interest rates. IndianRaga seeks to fill the role that royal patronage once played for Indian musicians, using technology to connect young musicians with potential new audiences.
Medical care for the developing world
As advancing technology in the developed world opens more and more possibilities for medical care, many people elsewhere remain unable to access and afford the devices and treatments that have emerged. Three of the IDEAS Global Challenge winners developed low-cost technologies for use in the developing world.
Wi-Care’s Wound-Pump — used to promote wound healing by applying a vacuum to increase blood flow — has already been tested in Haiti, receiving positive feedback from patients as well as caregivers, mechanical engineering graduate student Danielle Zurovcik said. Her team’s plastic accordion-folded cylinder aims to replace a large, expensive, cumbersome machine now in use.
For the 30 million people in the developing world who lack one or more limbs, the BETH Project designed an adjustable prosthetic socket to replace current prosthetics that must be custom-fitted to each user, a process that is often prohibitively expensive.
A team called Otto Clave came up with and distributed a sensor- and monitor-equipped autoclave for rural health practitioners. The team hopes to develop and deploy a text-messaging system to track the usage of their product and catch any problems that users have.
Managing urban waste
Two teams received funding through this year’s Muhammad Yunus Innovation Challenge to Alleviate Poverty, the theme of which was “Waste: Put it to Use.”
“Urban waste is a huge problem because there are very few ways to handle it effectively,” said biological engineering graduate student Kevin Kung, one of the members of Takachar, a team that plans to produce charcoal from household organic waste. “Our innovation is to make carbonization possible for urban waste.”
The other Yunus Challenge winner, wecyclers, developed a text-message-based platform that rewards residents of urban slums for delivering recyclables to a network of kiosks — awarding points redeemable for goods such as clean drinking water or cellphone minutes. The team’s “crowd-sourced recycling” model tackles an environmental and health hazard created by accumulated waste in slums, said team member Alex Fallon, a graduate student at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Disaster relief
Two teams won IDEAS funding for proposals aimed at disaster relief.
After a tornado hit their Massachusetts home in June 2011, sisters Morgan and Caitria O’Neill — an MIT graduate student in atmospheric physics and a recent Harvard College graduate, respectively — founded, a web-based platform for disaster organization that includes software for collecting donations and connecting aid organizers in different areas. They saw firsthand the “serious endemic problems to disaster relief,” Morgan O’Neill said, realizing, “There are really easy technologies we can apply to this.”
Another IDEAS-winning team, OpenIR, proposed a web application whose user-friendly infrared data can provide information on water depth, oil spread and fault lines to help in responding to a variety of disasters.
A new age of innovation
“There is a gap in the global supply chain,” said Jackie Stenson, a Harvard alumna who co-founded Essmart with MIT graduate student Diana Jue ‘09, MCP ‘12. Low-cost, life-improving technologies like water filters and solar lanterns are great, but only if they are available to the people that need them; when Essmart tried a novel distribution model in southern India, the two retail shops they worked with sold out of their products in a week.
Other IDEAS-winning teams included:
  • inSight, which developed an electronic retina imager that attaches to a pair of glasses and allows early diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of blindness in the United States
  • Fula&Style, which developed loosely stitched predesigned and precut business clothing that could be quickly tailored to customers
While the projects addressed a wide range of problems, all are innovative and — like all infant ventures — risky. But, as opening speaker Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, urged IDEAS participants, “The cost of innovation has gone down so much that instead of trying to minimize risk, just try it. Just do it.”