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Student Projects Win DifferenceMaker Funding

Idea Challenge Sparks Creative Solutions

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Members of the Lowell Sprouts/Let's Go Lowell team Christopher Horne, Mary Beth Burwood and Sean Hicks talk to Visiting Lecturer Ralph Jordan at the DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge.

By Jill Gambon

Combating childhood obesity in Lowell, providing artificial limbs for children in developing countries and creating online study tools for college students everywhere were at the heart of some of the winning proposals in the University’s first DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge.

Ten student teams were picked to share $25,000 in seed funding to advance their projects at the recent Idea Challenge grand finale.  The prize money, in awards ranging from $500 to $5,000, will help students file for patents, purchase supplies and equipment, develop marketing plans and bring their ideas to the next stage.

“Idea challenges and pitch contests are fun, and are important in raising awareness, but the real work begins after the winners are announced,” says Steven Tello, associate vice chancellor for entrepreneurship and economic development. “This summer we will be working closely with all of the finalists to help them move their ventures forward.”

Launched in January, the Idea Challenge attracted dozens of students from 25 academic departments representing all six of the University’s schools and colleges. The students – 40 teams in all – identified problems, evaluated the related opportunities, developed solutions and scoped out the resources needed to make things happen.

Hours in Development

For many teams, the project took on a life of its own, with long hours spent brainstorming, researching, designing, testing and refining.  One group finessed its plans over a spring break road trip. Others spent hours collaborating in dorm rooms and dining halls.

“The students are learning to come up with ideas and collaborate across disciplines,” says Ralph Jordan, a visiting instructor in the Manning School of Business who led a workshop on teamwork as part of the Idea Challenge program.

The 10 winning teams, selected from a group of 20 semifinalists, presented their ideas to a panel of alumni judges and a crowd of more than 100 attendees at the Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center. Each team had three minutes to explain their proposal before fielding judges’ questions on everything from marketing plans to potential licensing deals.

“Having funds to develop our project is absolutely mind blowing,” says Jonathan De Alderete, a senior mechanical engineering major and member of Developing Nation Prosthetics, which won the $5,000 Campus-wide DifferenceMaker award. The five-member team is designing low-cost artificial limbs for children who would otherwise not be able to afford them.  The students, all of them engineering majors, estimate they will be able to produce up to 500 prosthetics with the award money. They plan to work with health-care providers and non-profit organizations to connect with children in need, and expect to start delivering the products by year’s end.

“The best part of all of this is that we will be able to help kids who need it,” De Alderete says. “We are talking to a handful of doctors who do rehabilitative work, and as a result of the Idea Challenge funds, they are taking us much more seriously.”

Mary Beth Burwood, a member of the Lowell Sprouts/Let’s Go Lowell team, says her group’s $3,500 Sustainable Environment Award will help transform the city into a healthier place to live. Burwood and her teammates aim to use rooftop gardens at public schools to educate Lowell middle school students about the importance of locally grown, organic food.

Engaging Students

The University’s DifferenceMaker program was introduced last year and sponsors programs and activities that engage students in solving problems through innovative and entrepreneurial activities. It includes academic and extracurricular programs like the Idea Challenge. Based on the strong interest on campus this year, plans are in the works to expand.

“We definitely plan to grow the program,” says Tello. “We will be growing our DifferenceMaker LLC and will launch a DifferenceMaker Club, which will provide different types of opportunities for students to participate in the program.”

For a list of the winning projects and the students on each team, visit the DifferenceMakers website.