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Competitions help fuel Horn program's quest to nurture entrepreneurs

Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
The UD Hrn Program's Julie Frieswyk with the MatchMeds team, first prize winner in the Diamond Challenge’s social innovation group ";

“It’s so cool,” Dan Freeman says. “For three days, Newark becomes the epicenter for global youth entrepreneurship.”

Freeman was talking about the Diamond Challenge Summit, held each April at the University of Delaware, where Freeman is director of the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship, the event’s sponsor.

Just do a Google search for “high school entrepreneurship competitions” and you’ll see for yourself: the Diamond Challenge will turn up at or near the top of just about any listing.

This year – the seventh for the program – was no exception. High school students from 26 states and 40 countries participated this year, up from 11 states and 18 countries last year, with the 62 teams that survived the first two rounds invited to participate in the Summit in Newark last month. Some of the international teams traveled thousands of miles for the competition, including students from China, Ukraine, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Liberia and South Korea. Forty-seven teams from Delaware entered this year’s competition. Four of the 62 Summit participants were from Delaware; two finished in the top 20, but neither reached the finals.

With two tracks – one for business innovation and the other for social innovation – the teen teams tackled problems that have confounded their elders for years. Projects focused on pollution and the environment, medical research and healthcare delivery, bridging generational divides and detecting ingredients used to spike alcoholic beverages were entries. In many cases, teams had already incorporated their business ventures or applied for patents.

Having gone through three to four months of preparation, the closing day of the competition is intense – think “Shark Tank” minus the snark and with a significantly shorter laugh track – as well it should be, since participants are vying for a share of up to $100,000 in prizes – either in scholarships or venture capital funding.

The Diamond Challenge isn’t the only competition sponsored by the Horn Program. There’s also Hen Hatch, an equally lucrative two-track program for people with University of Delaware connections. One track is for UD students; the other is for faculty, staff and alumni. The finals were held in late April at the Queen Theater in Wilmington.

“Hen Hatch has two goals – learning and bringing the university community together,” says Vince DiFelice, faculty director of venture support at Horn.

In both programs, teams progress through a preliminary round in which judging is based on materials assembled and presented online. For Diamond Challenge, “we have about 500 virtual judges, and at least three of them review each entry,” says Rachel Strauss, Horn’s program coordinator.

Hen Hatch’s second round employs in-person presentations. Due to its global nature, the Diamond Challenge stages its second round at 25 locations in the United States and around the world. Many of the sites are schools, libraries or innovation hubs, Strauss says. For both programs, volunteer mentors are assigned to each team to advise them on developing their presentations.

For the finals of both competitions, teams make on-stage presentations under tight time limits, followed by questions from the competition’s judges, most of whom have business and entrepreneurial backgrounds.

“We’re not cultivating students as the next Jeff Bezos. We want them to recognize their passion areas, and see how their knowledge, skills an resources enable them to make changes in whatever way they want,” Strauss says.

“We see the Diamond Challenge as a launchpad, a starting platform, that gives students a sense of identity and purpose, a chance to develop a skillset that will be applicable anywhere they go,” she says.

Elle Jerry, who was part of Ursuline Academy’s G.I. Spy team that finished in the top 20 at the Summit, would agree. “We learned to work as a group, and the importance of communication,” said Jerry, a junior. “Everyone here is going through the same thing, experiencing the stress and anxiety of trying to improve their work.”

“They emphasized ‘network, network, network,’ and we were able to meet key people who helped us with what we’re doing,” added Rohan Kanchana, a Newark Charter School student who worked with classmate Noah Rossi on the Ground Up Computer Science project.

“All the teams provided a glimpse of what we’re moving toward in innovation,” said Tamarra Morris, economic development director for New Castle County and a judge for the Summit’s final round. “We saw some amazing ideas and concepts. I’m excited about the young people we’re supporting and developing.”

Diamond Challenge results

The Diamond Challenge competition is divided into two groups: business innovation and social innovation.

Business Innovation  

First: BAC Vision, Philip Pan and Mia Yang from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, won $11,000 to continue development of a device to improve determination of whether an individual is under the influence of alcohol before or while driving.

Second: OptiGlass, Sidharth Anantha and Arunima Saxena from Lexington (Massachusetts) High School won $7,000 to continue development of a wearable device that combines glasses and sound sensors to help the blind determine the location of objects in their environment.

Third: Natrion, Austin Cohen, Alexander Kosyakov, Cynthia Chen and Thomas Rouffiac of Greenwich  (Connecticut) High School, won $3,500 for a project developing sodium ion batteries for the more efficient storage of solar energy.

Two Delaware teams finished in the Top 20 overall. From Ursuline Academy, Caroline Randolph, Grace Nkurunziza and Elle Jerry presented G.I. Spy, an online application that helps identify the food triggers that cause gastrointestinal disorders. From Newark Charter School, Noah Rossi and Rohan Kanchana presented Ground Up Computer Science, a plan to deliver instruction in computer coding to students and others through schools, libraries and community centers.

Social Innovation

First: MatchMeds, Prafull Sharma of Montgomery High School (New Jersey) and Jun Lee of James M. Bennett High School (Maryland) won $11,000 to continue developing a nonprofit system would gather surplus medications and deliver them to safety-net clinics and charitable pharmacies for distribution to low-income patients who cannot afford to purchase the drugs.

Second: The Oil Magnet, Sol Hwangbo, Eden Gorevoy and Marisa Patel-O’Connor of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois, won $7,000 to continue development  of a system to improve safety and efficiency in cleaning up oil spills.

Third: SOBROS, Savanna Slaughter, Sam Park, Ritik Patnaik and Larissa Tyagi, from schools in California, Texas and New Hampshire, won $3,500 for development of a test strip that can be unobtrusively placed in a drink to determine whether it has been spiked.

Fourth: Gen2Gen, Alexei Murinets and Daria Boundgru from Moldova won $2,000 for developing a web-based project that aims to give added meaning to the lives of senior citizens in their country by involving them in generation-bridging activities with orphans and other children.

Two Delaware teams participated in this group. Siawaa Antwa of Freire Charter School and Jah’sima Cooper of Christiana High School presented Ikigai, a concept for an apartment housing complex that would provide coaching services for single mothers. Kelly Wang and Megan Chen of Newark Charter School presented BioSpork, a concept for a biodegradable alternative to plastic forks and spoons.

Hen Hatch results

The Hen Hatch competition is divided into two tracks, one for University of Delaware students and the other for UD alumni, faculty and staff.

Student track

First: 360 VR Technology, led by James Massaquoi of the Lerner College of Business and Economics and Sury Gupta of the College of Engineering, won $20,000 cash plus 10 hours of accounting services from Belfint, Lyons and Shuman and 10 hours of support from Epic Marketing, plus a $1,000 audience choice award. 360VR Technology is a virtual reality and drone solutions company that uses virtualization, drones and intensive analysis of buildings to aid emergency services with pre-incident, active and post-incident planning.

Second: The SEWcial Café, run by ChaCha Hudson, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, won an $8,400 cash prize. The venture is a community sewing space for women to create, collaborate, and develop handmade products in a relaxed and inspiring environment that encourages innovation.

Third: SolveABET, founded by Lerner College senior Jonathan Wood, won $5,600 in cash and 10 hours from Epic Marketing. SolveABET is a  blockchain accreditation platform for business processes and accreditation that is designed to be used to reduce costs, improve consumer trust, and help businesses realize increased revenue from transparent and automated systems.

Alumni, faculty and staff track

First: CATX Inc. won $14,800 cash and 10 hours of services both from Epic Marketing and the law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.  CATX, founded by Bruce Boman and Gilberto Schleiniger of the Department of Mathematical Sciences, is a biotechnology corporation committed to the development of more effective, even curative, cancer therapeutics through translation of discoveries in basic cancer research to clinical oncology. 

Second: RiKarbon, presented by Basudeb Saha of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department and Sarah Wenyon of the College of Arts and Sciences, won $10,200 in cash and  10 hours of services from both Epic Marketing and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. Their venture is producing bio-based, high-performing and safer ingredients for cosmetic manufacturers to capture more customers at a higher price.

Third: Patient Sortal, a Healthcare Data Management company founded by 2018 graduate Kenny Eck, won $5,000 cash plus  10 hours of services from both Belfint, Lyons and Shuman and Epic Marketing Patient Sortal provides solutions to aggregate, store, and share protected health information for use by patients, healthcare providers, businesses, and other organizations.

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