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IDEAS challenge showcases social ventures at MIT


IDEAS challenge showcases social ventures at MIT

Ten impact-driven student teams tackling a wide range of problems around the world took home $100,000 in combined awards at the MIT IDEAS innovation and social entrepreneurship showcase and awards Saturday.
A total of 34 teams, many members of which are already in the early stages of company building, displayed their projects at the event. They included an organization that uses drones to aid reforestation efforts, and an urban cohousing company that pairs land owners who want to age in place with middle-income first-time homebuyers.
The grand prize of $15,000 was awarded to Myco Diagnostics, a startup that is working on a urine-based test to cheaply and quickly diagnose tuberculosis in low-resource areas of India.
Tuberculosis, or TB, is traditionally diagnosed through chest X-rays or skin test analysis that requires medical professionals to examine microscopic samples.
But for impoverished people in developing countries dealing with common TB symptoms like coughing or a fever, it can be difficult to travel to the nearest clinic. The result is that only about 35 percent of the nearly 3 million people with TB in India get diagnosed. That makes it much more likely the disease will be transmitted to family members and people in the local community.
“If you’re living on $2 a day, you don’t necessarily have the financial freedom to travel to these clinics,” Myco Diagnostics co-founder Eric Miller, a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering, told MIT News. “We’re trying to replace that diagnostic with something that is decentralized, that can go to the patient.”
To accomplish that, Myco has re-engineered a set of proteins to bind with urine-based biomarkers of tuberculosis while staying stable enough to be stored at room temperature for long periods of time. It is also developing methods for cheaply grouping those proteins on paper so that, when exposed to urine, they can quickly show test results.
“Studies have shown that if you could cut the time of diagnostics from six months down to three months, over the course of 10 years you could reduce incidence of TB by 65 percent,” Miller says.
Myco’s team is made up of Miller; Naht Nguyen, an MBA candidate at Sloan School of Management; and Aditi Trehan, a research scientist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Miller credits his PhD advisor Hadley Sikes, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Professor at MIT, with helping to focus his research on areas that could make an impact. Myco has also been supported by the Tata Center, the Deshpande Center, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, and the Sandbox Fund.
Each year, IDEAS serves as a launchpad for new ventures with sustainable impact. Saturday’s showcase and awards were the culmination of a process that began at the beginning of the academic year, when 68 teams entered the MIT IDEAS program. Teams received feedback and support from industry experts, past IDEAS winners, and more than a dozen centers and programs across campus throughout the program.
Each of the projects fell into one of nine categories: water and sanitation, education and training, agriculture and food, health and medical, emergency and disaster relief, housing and transportation, energy and environment, mobile device and communication, and finance and entrepreneurship.
About 200 people attended the event on the 7th floor of the Samberg Conference Center. Thirty-five judges spoke with teams earlier in the day and deliberated on the floor below the event. They ultimately awarded nine other teams prizes of $10,000 and $7,500 each. Those teams were:Retired Talent ($7,500): a company that employs retirees by matching their skills with needs in the local community;Sustainable AI ($7,500): an organization that provides accurate forest inventory to aid reforestation efforts;Animo ($10,000): an affordable, noninvasive wristband that reduces hand tremors in patients with Parkinson’s disease;Precavida ($10,000): a digital matching platform that connects uninsured patients to health care providers;SciTeens ($10,000): a free online social network for high school STEM students designed to encourage sharing, reviewing, and collaborating;SiPure ($10,000): a company that develops silicon membrane technology that removes arsenic from fresh water;Req Staffing ($10,000): a company that develops contracts between energy companies and formerly incarcerated individuals to meet human capital needs;InSanirator ($10,000): a company that fills the gap in the sanitation value chain by converting fecal sludge into energy and clean water; andFrolic ($10,000): a company that pairs landowners who want to age-in-place with middle-income first time homebuyers.
IDEAS is run by the PKG Center at MIT.
This year marked the 18th year of IDEAS. Since its inception, the program has awarded more than $1 million to 160 social ventures operating in 44 different countries. After winning, IDEAS teams have gone on to secure over $65 million in funding and about half are still operating today.
This year’s projects included 16 undergraduate students, 50 graduate students, and 11 other MIT community members.
Last year’s winning teams have already gone on to develop a multipurpose sleeping bag for refugee families in the Middle East, design low-cost, inflatable seat cushions for wheelchair users in Indonesia, and launch mobile apps to do things such as access indoor air quality information in China and empower communities to document and preserve their indigenous languages.

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