At Imagine Cup finals, next generation of entrepreneurs shine

University students showcase innovations that help tackle some of the world's most pressing problems

On Saturday, Pedro Querido of Portugal waved his arms back and forth, taming a shopping cart with a green basket that seemingly had a mind of its own.

The shopping cart is no ordinary piece of equipment: it is wired to a motion-activated Kinect controller, part of Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming system but widely adapted now for a range of other uses.

The cart, called wi-Go, represented more than six months of work by Querido and his team, who were competing in Microsoft's 10th annual Imagine Cup finals in Sydney over the weekend. University students around the world compete in categories such as software design and game design.

This year, 106 teams made it to finals, vying for US$175,000 in prize money. Microsoft provides software and other tools, such as compute cycles on servers in the company's data centers, to students for free, as well as $3 million in grant money for Imagine Cup student projects.

In the early years, projects were more theoretical, dominated by students with backgrounds in computer science, engineering and math, said Walid Abu-Hadba, a Microsoft corporate vice president.

In the later years, it has become more interdisciplinary, with students incorporating team members with experience in marketing and business, Abu-Hadba said. Students are expected to come to the competition with not only strong technology but a sound business case that would enable them to turn their projects into businesses. It also is intended for students to tackle pressing issues in areas such as health care, disabilities, education and the environment.

Judges -- who come from backgrounds ranging from entrepreneurs to academics to journalists -- grill the students on all aspects of the projects, asking how they would raise funding, find customers and improve on the products. At times, it can be a tense, nerve-wracking experience: Many of the students have never given a public presentation in their lives.

"This is a very hard competition," Abu-Hadba said. "To have them go through this pressure and become experienced -- it is amazing."

The projects are not pie-in-the-sky. All finalists have put an incredible amount of thought and research into their projects. Many of the finalists have launched businesses on the back of their Imagine Cup work.

Edward Hooper of Australia won the 2008 Imagine Cup in Paris. His team created a network of sensors called the Smart Operational Agricultural Toolkit (SOAK) that gave farmers precise information on moisture in their fields and managed irrigation.

"Whether you win or lose, everyone learns how to put together a business case, how to pitch something to experts, teamwork, analytical skills," Hooper said. "I used the skills I learned from this all the time."

Hooper, who was a judge at this year's competition, took SOAK to market, meeting with investors in Silicon Valley and using Imagine Cup prize money to initially fund it. Unfortunately, the global financial crisis hit, and it became difficult to raise capital, Hooper said.

Hooper, based in Melbourne, is now working with a former Imagine Cup teammate on a personalized radio service called 121Cast. The Imagine Cup skills he learned allowed his current team "to do in three weeks what took us a few months" while preparing for the Imagine Cup.

Preparing before the second round of judging, the Portuguese team scrambled to make last-minute adjustments to its shopping cart. It is designed to for people who have trouble pushing a shopping cart in a store. A shopper controls the cart through hand gestures which are interpreted by the Kinect controller, and it will follow people while they shop. The teams hopes it will be of interest to stores seeking to increase accessibility.

Wi-Go is the brainstorm of teammate Luis de Matos, who has used a wheelchair since he was 14 years old. During their preparations, Querido fiddled with wires and made final tweaks. Suddenly, a wheel fell off, and the computer nestled at the back of the cart took a dive to the carpeted floor.

"It's OK," said fellow teammate Michael Adaixo coolly as the shopping cart's alarm went off as well.

The students, who study computer science at the Universidade da Beira Interior in Covilh㬠Portugal, made it through the first and second rounds, becoming one of six teams to compete in the finals on Monday. The winner of the Software Design competition will be announced on Tuesday.

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