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Students Present Social Entrepreneurship Business Ideas at Hult Prize Finals

Published: 6 months ago | 0 comments

In a lecture hall at the Fuqua School of Business, six student teams ate pizza carefully in their business attire, speaking in low voices to one another as they waited for the pitch sessions to start. While they represented diverse backgrounds, interests, and courses of study, these students shared a common vision—to change the world for the better.

The Hult Prize, sponsored by Hult International Business School, is an international social entrepreneurship pitch competition where winning teams from universities advance to regional competitions and then the finals, held at the United Nations, to compete for $1M in seed capital for their startups. 

Teams can be three to four students—whether undergraduates or graduate/professional students—who align their ideas with one or more of the UN’s sustainable development goals around a given theme. This year’s theme? Building startups that have a positive impact on our planet with every dollar earned.

The Duke finals were judged by Matt Nash, Managing Director for Social Entrepreneurship at Duke I&E; Jonathan Phillips, Director of the Energy Access Project; Savitha Sridharan, Founder and CEO of Orora Global; Chris Wedding, Adjunct Associate Professor in Business & Environment; and Christopher Timmins, Professor of Economics.

This year’s teams pitched a broad range of ideas with the potential to positively impact the planet:

Oryza Team

Oryza Presentation

By providing rice farmers with real-time feedback about their fertilizer and water levels, winning team Oryza aims to maximize rice yield while reducing the use of pollutant fertilizers, the high methane levels associated with too much flooding of rice paddies, and the nitrous oxide emissions associated with intermittent soaking of the paddies. Oryza uses sensors to measure the soil moisture and then tells farmers—via an app that employs Oryza’s algorithm—when to flood and drain their paddies and how much fertilizer to apply.

Buddies Team

Buddies Presentation

Targeting China due to environmental concerns and the growth of e-commerce there, runner-up Buddies pitched a gamified rewards-based social app to incentivize environmentally friendly actions. Users earn “green points” for recycling, bicycling, and other desirable behaviors that they can then spend either on real-life rewards or to take care of virtual “buddies,” pets cared for in the app.

Aerosprout Team

Aerosprout Presentation

To address sustainability concerns surrounding the shipping of produce as well as food waste due to processing and distribution, Aerosprout pitched a local hydroponics-based agriculture that would use 90% less water than soil-grown plants. The business would rent out unused warehouse spaces, transforming them into hydroponic farms that would grow leafy greens, herbs, and root plants for local restaurants.

eARThy Creations Team

eARThy Creations Presentation

eARThy Creations aims to change people’s habits with eco-friendly art. Club chapters at universities meet to create art from recycled materials; art is then sold in an online gallery, with select pieces displayed in key places around the university to encourage recycling and reflection on how we dispose of waste.

GoBean Team

GoBean Presentation

To reduce the importation of fertilizer to African countries and the associated carbon emissions, GoBean pitched its model of matching coffee shops and co-ops with local farmers to provide coffee grounds to be used as fertilizer, using SMS tech to overcome low internet rates.

Taste Tags Team

Taste Tags Presentation

To reduce food waste and support consumers in monitoring their food’s freshness, Taste Tags pitched a system of food labels that would change color to indicate when deli items should be thrown away.

“All five teams presented compelling pitches for how they can achieve sustainable impact,” said Nash. “The other judges and I hope these teams continue to refine their ventures through the Hult Prize wildcard round, Duke I&E’s new Student Founders Program, and other sources of support at Duke and beyond.”

Student directors Austin Jia ’20 and Beini Yin ’20, who led organizational efforts for this year’s competition at Duke, were enthusiastic about the Hult Prize’s ability to educate and inspire students. Jia participated in the challenge as a sophomoreand while his team didn’t win the Duke final round, they were able to secure a spot at the regional competition in Boston in the wildcard round. 

“Engaging with the Hult Prize has been the most formative experience in my college career,” Jia said. It’s been like a fifth year of Duke education for me, and it’s been a great pre-professional launchpad, as the fundamental skills of entrepreneurship are universally applicable.”

Yin, who competed in the Duke finals in her first year, said, “The experience helped me step out of my comfort zone and connect with new friends and mentors, and it exposed me to the fascinating field of social entrepreneurship. I hope we were able to provide the same inspiring experience to other students this year.”

This year’s winning team, Oryza, was formed by Nitin Subramanian ’22, Maggie Pan ’22, Shrey Majmudar ’22, and Amjad Syedibrahim ’22. 

Oryza Hult Prize at Duke winning team The Oryza Team

Since advancing through the semifinal round of the competition, the Oryza team has met with faculty across Duke and especially within the Nicholas School of the Environment—including Lydia Olander, Alison Eagle, and Christoper Timmins—to inform their efforts to maximize crop yield and minimize greenhouse gas emissions in rice farming.

“I can’t emphasize enough how supportive Duke faculty and staff have been throughout this process,” Majmudar said. “As we continue working throughout the spring, we’re going to make sure we are meeting with as many faculty as possible for feedback and suggestions.”

In the coming months, the Oryza team plans to physically make and test its hardware (methane and soil water sensors, as well as an accompanying microcontroller) and develop the Oryza app for farmers. They will also be applying for a USAID grant for developing a proof of concept, working to conduct a small-scale test of their technology in the spring, and continuing to refine their pitch deck.

The Oryza team was enthusiastic about the opportunities the Hult Prize has presented. “Creating a forced mechanism for students to innovate really pushes your thinking to come up with the best solution possible,” Subramanian said. “The mentorship the judges have provided throughout the process is also great. Hult at Duke really cares about getting the best out of each student’s ideas.”

Pan, reflecting on the experience, said inspiration was a driving factor in the team’s success. “Working on the project took a lot of hard work, but the more I worked on our project, the easier it became. I became more passionate about the problem and more determined to perfect our solution,” she said. “This competition reminds us of the bigger picture and inspires us to consider what our values are, what we should be working on, and how we have the potential to change the world.”

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