Solar Crowdfund Wins DCU/Manning School of Business Innovation Contest

Five people pose for a photo while holding a giant check Image by Ed Brennen
Solar Crowdfund team members Muhammad Khalil, second from left, and Tolotra Samuel, center, hold their first-place check alongside, from left, DCU Innovations Director Thomaz DeMoura, Manning School of Business Assoc. Deans Amit Deokar and Yi Yang after winning the DifferenceMaker Innovation Contest.

By Ed Brennen

During his UML orientation tour last summer, first-year solar engineering graduate student Tolotra Samuel picked up an informational flyer about the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute during a stop at DifferenceMaker Central on North Campus. 

“I read about the DifferenceMaker competitions, and they sounded like a great opportunity,” says Samuel, a native of Madagascar.

Four months later, Samuel was picking up a giant check for $1,000 after his team won the 10th annual DifferenceMaker Innovation Contest, sponsored by Digital Federal Credit Union (DCU) and the Manning School of Business. Open to students of all majors, the contest challenges teams to come up with cutting-edge banking and financial innovations.

Samuel and teammates Muhammad Khalil and Borna Doroundi edged out four other finalists to win with Solar Crowdfund, a platform that would enable people to invest in large-scale solar projects to help combat climate change. They automatically advance to the DifferenceMaker $50K Idea Challenge to be held in the spring.

“Researching this idea was a lot of work, but it was worth it,” says Samuel, who used to work in the banking industry and wanted to come up with a way to merge the fields of finance and renewable energy.

Teams had five minutes to pitch their projects and then answer questions from a panel of judges: Ed Gallagher ’84, a retired senior vice president at Comcast Business Services; Darcie Sunnerberg ’87, vice president/sovereign analyst at Loomis Sayles and Company; Hoang Nguyen ’07, director of finance at DCU; and Sandesh Parulekar, director of information systems development at DCU.

A man gestures while speaking at a podium while two women look on Image by Ed Brennen
Private Teller Booths team members, from right, Jesse Kajko, Sharon Banks-Obanor and Nicole Chanquet pitch to the judges at the 10th annual DifferenceMaker Innovation Contest.
Nguyen, an accounting alum, was impressed by the research the Solar Crowdfund team put into its project, including talking to the CFO of a solar farm to understand the risks and challenges. He was “blown away” by the innovative thinking of all five teams.

“It was great to see them thinking outside the box to solve real-world problems,” says Nguyen, who served as a judge for the first time at the suggestion of DCU Innovations Director Thomaz DeMoura, who mentors the teams.  

Sophomore business major Edvard Nordlund came up with the idea for AlgoPal, a platform that helps people who don’t know how to write code get into the world of algorithmic trading. He recruited four of his UML men’s hockey teammates — fellow sophomores Matt Crasa, Gabriel Blanchard, Isac Jonsson and Stefan Owens — to join his Innovation Contest team.

“I used to do a fair amount of this trading myself, but I found that the tools available were kind of graphically unappealing,” says Nordlund, a native of Stockholm, Sweden, who plays goalie for the River Hawks. 

By creating an algorithm, Nordlund says, “You can make a set of rules that you know are generally going to be profitable. It can constantly monitor the market and make decisions for you, whether you’re playing hockey or in the classroom.” 

A young man gestures while speaking at a podium while another young man looks on Image by Ed Brennen
AlgoPal's Owen Cole pitches his team's algorithmic trading platform while Edvard Nordlund looks on at Saab ETIC.
Like most students pitching their ideas to the judges, Nordlund and his teammates were nervous.

“But it’s kind of the same as in hockey — you have to embrace those nerves and try to tell yourself they’re going to make you sharper mentally,” he says.

Senior business majors Isaac Carpio and Dumark Ramirez pitched Bridged Connection, a platform that can link a person’s cryptocurrency account to their brokerage account to avoid selling off crypto assets at a depreciation or loss. While they didn’t win, Ramirez says pitching their idea in a “Shark Tank”-like competition was worthwhile. 

“We plan on developing this idea, so this gives us the experience we need when we go to bigger investors. We know how to present a project the right way,” says Ramirez, who is from Brockton, Massachusetts.

A man in glasses gestures with his hands while speaking as another man looks on Image by Ed Brennen
Innovation Contest judge Hoang Nguyen '07 questions a DifferenceMaker team while fellow judge Ed Gallagher '84 listens at Saab ETIC.
Nicole Chanquet, Sharon Banks-Obanor, Jesse Kajko and Mustafa Bellakhdar pitched their idea for Private Teller Booths, an artificial intelligence bank teller booth that makes it faster and more convenient for customers to access their accounts. The students are taking Finance for Emerging Business Enterprises with Assoc. Prof. Michael Ciuchta this semester.  

“Win or lose, it was a great experience just being here and seeing other people react to our idea,” says Banks-Obanor, a senior criminal justice major with a minor in entrepreneurship from Brockton.

Nick Woolsey, Andrew Tarnowski and Daniella Pacheco pitched Pay Day, a zero/reverse interest-bearing bank account that helps people pay off payday loans. 

Every student who competed in the Innovation Contest received $100 from DCU.