At the Imagine Cup: Tech Students Tackle World's Toughest Problems

Students teams from 75 countries hope their tech-based solutions will make a difference.

Where’s the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs going to come from? The game-changing tech entrepreneurs of the future could be one of the science, technology, engineering, and math students in Sydney this week for Microsoft’s 10th Imagine Cup, an annual global competition that challenges students to come up with innovative solutions for the world's toughest problems.

Each student project uses technology to address issues included in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals—improving education, ensuring environmental sustainability, and fighting diseases. Since it’s a Microsoft competition, the projects use their technology—like the Kinect for Xbox 360 or Windows 8. This year more than 350 students from 106 teams representing 75 countries—every continent except Antarctica is represented—are competing for $175,000 in prizes and the advice and support they need to make their prototype a reality.

Getting to the worldwide finals is a year-long process for the teams, which usually represent one college or university and are comprised mostly of computer science and engineering majors. Throughout the academic year the teams compete in local, regional, and online competitions. When school lets out, each country's national finalists head to the worldwide finals.

Once they arrive, the pressure on each team is pretty intense. They only have 35 minutes to pitch their project—which might only be in the prototype stage or tested in a small pilot—to a judging panel made up of a who’s who from academia and the tech industry.

The judges don't hold back when it comes to poking holes in the ideas, asking tough questions about everything from the concept and the design of the project to the feasibility. Since learning how to pitch to a team of potential investors is an essential skill for any future tech titan, by going through the competition process, the students are picking up a valuable skill that, win or lose, will come in handy.

After every round of pitching and demonstrations, the judges tally their votes and make cuts. It gets emotional after teams find out they've been eliminated—sometimes students are crying in corners afterwards, which is understandable because they've worked tirelessly to create solutions that they believe in.

Microsoft has included sessions in the program to help teams figure out how—even if they don't win—they can make their projects a reality. As Andrew Lin, one of the members of Australia’s StethoCloud team, which designed a stethoscope that can diagnose pneumonia—the number one killer of children worldwide—said, "the project isn’t about technology." Instead, said Lin, "it's about saving lives."

We'll be catching up with several of the Imagine Cup teams over the next few days to learn more about their projects and how they're using technology to solve the world’s toughest problems.

Photo via Microsoft Imagine Cup

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