MIT student leaders go virtual with global startup competitions

On April 22, the MIT Water Club hosted its annual Water Innovation Prize Pitch Night, the culminating event of a year-long international competition for student innovators seeking to launch water sector companies. This event, now in its sixth year, normally gathers over 250 people to MIT’s campus to cheer on finalist teams from around the world as they compete for cash awards. Yet, six weeks before the event, when the Water Club would usually be finalizing logistics and collecting RSVPs, Covid-19 upended our world.

At the same time that the Water Club’s student leaders were gearing up for their event, the MIT Food and Agriculture Club was in its own final stages of planning its annual pitch competition, the Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize. Now in its fifth year, this event is a national innovation competition for student startups spanning all aspects of the food system. For both clubs, these events are the largest and highest-profile of the year and provide important networking and professional development opportunities for finalist teams and attendees. Bringing signature MIT resilience and ingenuity, student leaders from both clubs persevered through physical distancing measures, successfully pivoting both events to virtual space.

From shared disappointment to supportive action

At the outset, both clubs' leaders were very disappointed. Zhenya Karelina, a second-year MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management who is also the Food and Agriculture Club’s co-president and director of the Rabobank-MIT Prize, had been so excited to lead the Rabobank-MIT Prize. She “had this vision of what it would look like at the end,” but under the circumstances she “felt like [she] had to let it all go.” But cancelation simply wasn’t an option. As Erika Desmond, a first-year MBA student at MIT Sloan and vice president of growth for the MIT Water Club, puts it, “the first priority is making sure that the finalists still get the opportunity of getting their innovations out there and to compete for the prizes.”

Zhenya’s initial disappointment quickly led to her realization that other MIT startup competition leaders must be feeling the same way. So, she started a Slack channel to connect with other student leadership teams who were dealing with similar losses and to collectively brainstorm what it could look like to take things virtual. “A lot of these MIT prizes are very similar, but we tend to run them in silos. This seemed, to me, to be a cool opportunity to learn from each other,” Zhenya reflects. The Slack group included leaders from the Clean Energy Prize, the 100K Prize, the Water Innovation Prize, and the Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize. “We were all in the same boat,” recalls Javier Renna, a sophomore MBA student at MIT Sloan who is one of the co-directors for the Water Innovation Prize. “I was amazed by the sense of community in saying, ‘We’re all trying to do the same thing’ and ‘What can we do to help each other out?’”

New challenges and silver linings

For any organization to pivot one of its biggest in-person events of the year online is no easy task. Inevitably, both the Food and Agriculture Club and the Water Club faced technical, strategic, and personal hurdles while organizing their online events. Both clubs loosely maintained the traditional format of each pitch event: keynotes, pitches by student teams, and Q&A with judges, immediately followed by deliberation and award announcements. One aspect that they struggled to replace, however, was in-person networking. When students and entrepreneurs from around the country gather for these events, networking is “one of the main value propositions,” says Desmond. As a replacement, the Water Club tried smaller virtual breakout sessions through Zoom, to mixed effect.

Another huge challenge was to hurdle the technology gaps. “I was the host of the webinar and I remember that it was very scary at first,” recalls Renna. “I had no idea how to run a webinar and I thought ‘how am I going to manage all the different stakeholders with people watching?’ It felt like a recipe for a disaster.” But after tapping a friend experienced in webinars, he managed to learn the ropes. “Once she started to explain it, I started to feel more comfortable.” Renna says. Ultimately, he was able to share his newfound knowledge with leaders of the Food and Agriculture Club, helping them to open up their webinar to the public.

Overcoming initial roadblocks led to a shift in thinking for both teams. “The biggest thing for us was pivoting from looking at [going virtual] as a disadvantage … to how we could use it to our advantage,” Desmond recalls. For Karelina, shifting her mindset was key. “By the end … I could see how the virtual environment actually enables all these really cool opportunities that I hadn't even thought about.” In fact, going online ended up revealing some key advantages. Among them was how the virtual events enabled the participation of a more diverse audience base, one that wouldn’t have been possible under normal circumstances. “Someone from Japan contacted me asking how they could watch the event,” Renna says. “We had people logging onto the Water Innovation Prize from Africa, the UK, the East Coast, the West Coast, Mexico, and more!”

Significant startup support for five winning teams continues

Despite all the changes, the energy and creativity of the diverse group of participating student entrepreneurs was palpable as they competed for cash awards. The two clubs together awarded $75,000 across five winning teams. In fact, the Water Club was able to increase the total prize amounts for its competitors by diverting money saved from other event cancelations. So, the increased award of $25,000 came as a pleasant surprise for Blue Tap, the team winning first place in the Water Innovation Prize. This team, based out of the University of Cambridge, uses 3D printing technologies to bring affordable clean water to the developing world. They have focused development efforts of their main product, a simple and cost-effective chlorine injector, in Uganda. Their work there has also involved community development as they have partnered with over 30 plumbers to train them in water treatment practices and entrepreneurship.

Runners up in the Water Innovation Prize included second-place winner Floe. The team, from Yale University, was awarded $12,500 to further the development of their system that prevents ice buildup on roofs. Ice buildup affects nearly 62 million buildings across the United States every year and can lead to serious structural damage. An MIT team, Harmony Water, took home a third-place prize of $7,500, to support their continued research and development of a low-cost water desalination system that can produce more water and less brine using 30 percent less energy than present methods.

Eight teams competed for the MIT-Rabobank Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize, which awarded two top prizes totaling $30,000. MotorCortex, a student team out of Carnegie Mellon, won the first-place prize of $20,000 with advanced robotics technology that could change the future of the fruit packing industry. The group has developed an algorithm to guide robotic arms in food packing plants that optimizes “pick-up-points” on delicate fruits like avocados and apples. Varying shapes and sizes of individual fruits have historically made automation of the industry a particularly difficult challenge — until now. Their invention could potentially cut fruit packing costs in half as their robotic arms would replace human laborers — in low-wage, high-turnover positions — and increase packing efficiency.

In second place, winning $10,000, was Antithesis Foods, a team from Cornell University using high-protein chickpeas and a novel processing technology to produce healthier chocolate snacks. Their garbanzo bean-based product, Grabanzos, was all set for rollout previous to Covid-19. However, the sudden shuttering of production facilities, storefronts, and campuses, has greatly hindered their progress. The startup will now use their prize to pivot their original business plan to an online sales platform.

Innovation prize sponsors inspired by student resilience

The main sponsor of the food prize is Rabobank, a global financial services leader in the food, agribusiness, and beverage industries. Rabobank executives working with members of the Food and Agriculture Club were impressed by the students’ resilience and drive. Throughout the past months Jennifer Jiang worked closely with the club. As vice president of strategy and business development at Rabobank, she reflects that she has been “inspired by the creativity and novel thinking of the team to run an event that gave viewers and participants alike an energy that so closely resembled that of an in-person event.” 

MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) serves as a mentor to both teams in the production of these innovation prizes, and is also a co-sponsor. Working day-to-day with the students, J-WAFS saw this resilience firsthand. Each year the prizes grow in participation and success, and despite the unprecedented challenges of physical distancing and other measures over the last few months, the students produced thoughtful, engaging events. "We were again delighted by the dedication, creativity, and achievements that students from MIT and across the country bring to challenges in the food and agriculture sectors,” says J-WAFS Director John H. Lienhard V. The students’ perseverance in the face of adversity demonstrated their commitment to see these impactful competitions through to their end, as well as to advancing solutions to global water and food challenges. As we move forward through these challenging times, we can look to the collaborative spirit, commitment, and drive of these young water and food leaders as inspiration.

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