What do motorcycles, crickets and camel’s milk all have in common? All were presented as ideas for social enterprises at the Hult Prize competition  @ Brandeis. 

The Hult Prize consists of a $1 million award given to the team of entrepreneurial college students who come up with the best idea of a social enterprise that can improve the world. In this competition, each team is given four minutes to present their concept, and its potential both in terms of social impact and viability in the marketplace. The teams discuss how they would implement their ideas, eventually expand their businesses and stand apart from competing firms. After each presentation, a panel of judges asked questions and then deliberated on which team will proceed to the next round. The first round of the competition was held at the Heller School of Social Policy and Management.

This year, the theme of the competition is energy. As the pamphlet outlining the event states, “When you harness the power of energy creatively, you can change the world.” Each team came up its own way of innovating energy use, from electricity, to natural gas and food.

A company called “Samantha” won the first round. This startup proposed providing towns in rural Africa with a community biodigester. A biodigester is a machine that takes cow dung — a renewable resource — and turns it into natural gas, which can then be harnessed as energy. Additionally, the process turns the cow waste into manure, which benefits agricultural production. While there have been attempts to introduce biodigesters to Africa, they have failed because the machines were only implemented as household appliances, where there isn’t a sufficient amount of cow dung for fuel. In addition to solving this problem, the founders of Samantha hope that community biodigesters will serve as a means to bring people together. 

Unsurprisingly, technology was in the spotlight at the competition. Because technology is capable of accomplishing a wide variety of actions, often without direct human involvement, it allows for the realization of ideas that would otherwise be considered impossible. One prominent example of this is telemedicine robots, as presented by Boston Medical Partners.

In rural parts of  Nigeria, people struggle to get medical care. This is because medical centers are few and far between, and many people don’t have the resources to travel to hospitals or health clinics. The solution: Instead of sending the patients to doctors, Boston Medical Partners hopes to send the doctors to the patients. Instead of having doctors drive out themselves, which would require time and supplies, the startup has designed robots through which the doctors can remotely communicate with their patients and assess them. While designing and building robots also requires time and supplies, the robots give the doctors the ability to treat several patients in a much shorter timeframe, a key to improving medical care.

Technology comes in all forms. Many teams presented apps as a means of sharing their ideas with the world. Apps allow people to connect with each other and access certain information. For certain business models, apps are a necessity. GreenChoice, a startup focused on informing people about the ethical and nutritional standards food products meet, proposed a mobile app that could be used in the supermarket. In additiion to having the convenience of easy access on the go, the app would also allow users to choose which criteria are important to them, allowing for a personalized experience. SafeRide proposed an app akin to Uber that would allow users to reserve rides and assess the qualifications of each driver. The twist is that, instead of being for cars, this app is for motorcycle taxis, which are much more common in Liberia, where the app would first be implemented.

One startup, Ubuntu, aims to bring two seemingly unrelated ideas together. The company aims to provide solar power to rural towns in India, where electricity isn’t common and the electrical services that do exist can be prohibitively expensive. Ubuntu also wants to provide its users with additional services on their app, which would allow people track the cost of using solar panels for energy. 

Underlying the spirit of the competition is the notion that the world faces a global energy crisis. Most countries still rely on fossil fuels that emit heat-trapping greenhouse gasses, while others simply don’t have the infrastructure to meet their energy needs. The Hult prize competition proves that students are thinking critically about how to solve this crisis. The question is, will their ideas come to fruition?