A driving ambition to win

Fri, Jul 22, 2011, 01:00

What do student competitions like Microsoft’s Imagine Cup mean for the winners?

DOES A student technology competition really matter? Winning – as Institute of Technology Sligo’s Team Hermes did last week at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup in New York – is exciting for the winner, but beyond that, does a global competition like the Imagine Cup really matter?

Microsoft, which has sponsored this event for nine years, with the finals in a different global city each year, would of course say yes. One reason is because the competition has always been based around addressing global problems with information technology rather than simply being very clever.

Competitors must address a number of criteria, including targeting a global issue, ideally linked to the United Nation’s Millennium Goals around solving the world’s biggest problems such as poverty, starvation, gender inequality, education, disability and health.

“You guys say, you know what, we can make a difference, we can change the world; we can solve problems around global health, climate change and much, much more together,” Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer told competitors at the launch of the event.

“A large-scale conversation has begun around how students, the agents of change, are harnessing the power of technology to address these global challenges around the world.”

It isn’t a once-off challenge, but for this generation it is a lifetime “homework assignment”, as students were told by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, professor of health policy and management at Columbia University and adviser on the Millennium Goals to United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

Sachs said the IT tools students had were remarkable, but the problems they would need to address in real life were “harrowing”.

“Information technology will be at the very centre of solutions.”

Often the projects and the issues they address are deeply moving. An Egyptian team member, when asked if her country’s uprising had affected her team’s project, said it was directly related to the outcome of the uprising. More than 200 people who had been fired upon during the revolution had lost their sight, she said. Their project dealt with helping the blind and partially sighted.

“I had read a story about a boy studying engineering who took two bullets in the eyes and lost his sight,” she added. “This affected our project. They lost their sight because they were asking for things that were their right.”

Students in the event tackle daunting problems with youthful aplomb, often accomplishing what professionals have never considered, and they often do it on a far shorter timetable than a commercial project.

One Microsoft executive noted that the students in the networking competition – one of nine within the Imagine Cup – had to put together a complete working server network in 30 hours – the kind of task which might take a Microsoft internal team several weeks.

Each year of the competition, though, the students also produce increasingly sophisticated applications and services that have real commercial viability.

Microsoft has gradually recognised this by introducing more and more entrepreneurial focus within the event.

Five years ago, Ireland’s first team entry into the centrepiece software design competition of the cup was one of the six finalist teams and ultimately won a place on a business accelerator programme, a kind of venture capital boot camp, with the three finalist teams out in Silicon Valley.

This year, Microsoft added in sessions open to all. One explored how to draw down USAid funds for projects. Another was a venture capital and innovators panel (one member was Dean Kamen, the well-known technology inventor who created an at-home kidney dialysis machine and the Segway two-wheeled transport device).

Microsoft also announced it would provide $3 million in funding grants for viable projects that came out of the Imagine Cup.

Students in the past have gone on to commercialise their projects even when not one of the winning teams.

A team from the Czech Republic, which was not a finalist, developed a software system for managing equipment and co-ordinating teams that has proven effective for rescue teams working in extreme environments. The system has been used in Haiti to track the progress of the cholera epidemic there.

The French winners of the 2004 Imagine Cup formed a game development company which has received $7.5 million in investor funding and is producing games for Facebook.

Meanwhile, this year’s winners from IT Sligo have been talking to insurance companies about commercialising their device. They will go to work at the business incubator at IT Sligo to develop their device, which plugs into a car dashboard, monitors driving and road conditions and gives the driver and car owner direct feedback.

Entrepreneurs who spoke to the students warned them that while their competition projects were likely to be the first of many ideas, commercial success may be many years away.

As Dennis Crowley, chief executive of hot New York start-up Foursquare, told them: “Foursquare’s success is built off 10 years of failure. It’s not an easy path. The first lesson is, don’t give up on whatever you’re working on. If the time is not right now, it might be in a couple of years.”

For many of the competitors, it will be their Imagine Cup project that kick-starts a sense of capability and entrepreneurial desire they never knew they had.

“We’re challenging students to build real-world solutions that address real problems,” says Jon Perera, Microsoft’s general manager for education strategy and the organisational ringmaster for the Imagine Cup.

“The students believe they can change the world, they will change the world and they have to change the world.”


THE INSPIRATION for Imagine Cup projects generally starts with the United Nations Millennium Goals to address some of the world’s biggest problems, but typically the teams will start with one project idea that slowly develops into something a bit different.

In the case of Ireland’s Team Hermes from IT Sligo – students Matthew Padden, Áine Conaghan, Calum Crawley and James McNamara, led by academic mentor Pádraig Harte – their driving safety monitoring device, which won the overall cup and a $25,000 award, started more as a road safety monitor, says Crawley.

“We started with looking at dangerous roads,” he says. Their inspiration came from hearing regular radio broadcasts about road deaths.

Harte notes: “The project started out trying to solve road traffic accidents by analysing roads, but as the students researched it, the realisation dawned that it was not roads, not cars, but the drivers in cars that were the problem.

“That was that eureka moment, because the whole focus of the project changed completely.”

The little device the students developed plugs directly into the dashboard of any car made after 2000. It provides feedback on driving technique while also warning of upcoming dangerous roads.

The goal is to reduce traffic crashes, which cost the world economy $250 billion every year and are the second leading cause of death in young people worldwide.

By encouraging safer driving, the device could help younger drivers as well as fleet managers achieve lower insurance premiums.

With some encouraging interest from insurance companies in Ireland and the US, the team intends to actively pursue commercial deployment of their device.