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Why Saving the World Requires More Than Just a Good Idea

How college students can become social entrepreneurs. Two weeks ago, for the NCIIA’s annual March Madness for the Mind, we brought 16 college...

How college students can become social entrepreneurs.

Two weeks ago, for the NCIIA’s annual March Madness for the Mind, we brought 16 college teams together to showcase their inventions at San Francisco’s Exploratorium. These students have taken their ideas beyond the classroom and into the real world to try and solve critical global problems.

A mix of graduates and undergraduates, from science, engineering, business and liberal arts backgrounds showed presented their prototypes (airport security was a challenge in some cases!) and in one-minute pitches, articulated how their products or services would provide clean water, affordable energy, or, in the case of a low-cost medical device, save lives. Think of it as a university-level science fair where the best ideas spawn into social ventures.

Each team had to produce a video to describe their innovation. The winning video was by a group of students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institiute—called OsmoPure, it's a water purification device that screws into ordinary plastic soda bottles to filter out harmful bacteria and gunk. The runner-up team from Marquette University built a human powered nebulizer machine, which uses a bicycle pedal to deliver liquid medicine into the lungs of asthma patients living in rural villages in El Salvador, who lack access to electricity.

Other students like Zubaida Bai and Kellen McMartin demonstrated how they have moved beyond the prototyping stage by launching actual companies. While in graduate school at Colorado State University, Bai and Martin founded AYZH, Inc. (pronounced “eyes”), a for-profit company whose mission is to improve the quality of life and economic power of rural women in India. They decided to attend CSU because of its new graduate program, Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise, which allows students to get a masters of science in business administration while building a social venture.

The first product AYZH is producing is a kit for rural midwives to deliver babies. Already, AYZH has sold 150 birth kits and plans to produce another 300 by the end of this month. As part of the summer practicum, the team spent ten weeks in India carrying out on-site and on-the-ground research, identifying obstacles and resources.

March Madness for the Mind is a great opportunity for students to showcase their innovation, but we support student invention year-round, and not just a few days each year. Not in attendance in San Francisco, but still noteworthy is another student inventor-turned-social entrepreneur, Patrick Walsh, who co-founded Greenlight Planet with former classmates Mayank Sekhsaria and Anish Thakkar from the University of Illinois to sell solar-powered LED lights to replace kerosene lanterns. Walsh was first exposed as an undergraduate to the developing world through the Engineers without Borders project in India.

Before graduating, they raised $100,000 from grants and awards, which allowed Walsh to go to China and set up production. Walsh is now living in China, nearby the factory; Sekhsaria and Thakkar have moved to India, built a sales force, and Greenlight Planet has since sold tens of thousands of lights.

These student innovators have a few things in common: They had supportive faculty/mentors in a university environment, which encouraged them to take the leap out of the lab and classroom and into the market; they got early seed funding from friends and/or family, applied for grants and won business plan competitions; they sometimes battled team dynamics worthy of a TV reality show and came to realize that the technology piece is the easy part of launching a business; and finally, they have come to see themselves as social entrepreneurs, not just students with good ideas.

How might we ensure that more students follow in their footsteps?

Jennifer Keller Jackson is the grants manager at National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, whose mission is to support innovation, invention and entrepreneurship at U.S. colleges and universities. NCIIA sponsored the March Madness for the Mind competition at the Exploratorium in San Francisco and also provided grants to the student teams described above.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user C Mulvany.

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