Great startups that are solving the world’s most pressing social issues

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By Adriana Kao, MBA 2016, CellShare team

After the nerves have settled, the Hult Prize, the world’s largest student competition to solve the world’s toughest challenges, has its finalist teams. These finalists came out of the five regional finals held in Boston, San Francisco, Dubai, Shanghai and London on March 12, 2016.  The UMD team, comprised of two grad students, an undergraduate student and an alum, competed in and experienced the regional competition held in Boston.  Although the UMD team did not go through to the next stage of the competition, it was a terrific experience, in terms of exposure, professional and personal learning experience.

The Hult Prize held in Boston, hosted at the Hult International Business School, was fast-paced and dynamic.  There were 58 teams that descended on Boston, from Colombia to France, from India to Nigeria. All sorts of schools were represented and the make-up of teams were as diverse as can be; there were engineers, architects, entrepreneurs, food scientists, bankers, social workers and of course, plenty of business students. It was humbling to be part of such an amazing congregation of people, with such diverse talent and experiences, and all united with the vision to help alleviate poverty in the world’s urban crowded areas.

The Hult Prize, which ultimately awards $1M in funding to one social enterprise, asked participants to think of ways to double the income of 10M people in urban crowded spaces by 2022. A huge challenge, no doubt, but the charge is ambitious on purpose to provoke students to be daring, to break the mold, to disrupt and to change the world.  And that was just the beginning of the challenges. Another tremendous difficulty was to boil down the grand idea and business model to only 10 minutes, divided into 6 minutes of presentation and 4 minutes of Q&A.  If you haven’t timed yourself talking recently, let me tell you, 6 minutes is incredibly short to convey any idea, much less an idea with the potential to lift millions out of poverty!  Teams were judged on how well they aligned with the objective given by Hult, on whether it was impact-centered, and on how feasible, disruptive and scalable the social enterprise idea was. Judges included high level executives from the nonprofit, corporate and government sectors, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs, and came from diverse industries and companies, such as Google, NYC Department of City Planning, and Oxfam America.

At the end, six teams battled it out in the final round in Boston: Helium from Colombia, ProTrash from Mexico, Magic Bus from Kenya, ACT from India, OptiMrkt from the University of Tampa, and Chacara Foods from Rutgers University.  These teams presented such innovative and unique ideas that is worth telling you briefly what each one proposes to do.

Helium is using solar panels embedded in bricks to help bring affordable energy to the poor in Colombia. In addition to being a brilliant modification of current technology, they were able to make it so the solar brick costs the same and can support the same weight as regular bricks, making it easy for developers and home owners to use and replace one for the other.

ProTrash has created a system to simultaneously help poor families increase their income, obtain nutritious food and improve waste management. They’ve created a small-scale trash sorting and weighing machine that is powered by bicycle pedals. Poor families who utilize this machine can exchange the sorted recyclable trash for fresh produce and food from the local food bank and also receive income for the sale of the trash to large recycling facilities.

Magic Bus is an organized text-based ticketing service that aims to make bus transport more reliable and accessible for slum dwellers, especially in and around African large cities.  The easy to use system reduces waiting times and increases productivity of both commuters and buses.

ACT proposes to help anyone with some idle time and a cell phone to earn money.  ACT will take data processing that need image categorization and text verification and turn these into simple questions that users can answer using a cell-phone based application. This service will be sold to research groups and companies that require this kind of preliminary data processing and users of the app will be able to receive the monetary benefits.

OptiMrkt is a marketplace that facilitates peer-to-peer investments and connects micro-entrepreneurs to buyers and investors. OptiMrkt differentiates itself from other P2P lending platforms because it is also a mobile wallet, it targets small businesses in slums, and it conducts credit verification of its customers so they can better access capital through conventional means.

Chacara Foods aims to solve the food desert problem by collecting “imperfect” produce from farmers, drying it to extend its shelf life, thereby making it easy to transport to communities far and wide.

At the end, after a nerve-racking round of final presentations, one team prevailed.  Magic Bus, from Earlham College won the Hult Prize Boston Regional Finals and will go on to compete for the grand prize of $1M against five other teams this coming September.

To learn more about the Hult Prize, visit

Adriana’s experience crosses the business and nonprofit sectors, having worked for 5 and a half years in retail sports marketing and the same amount of years in nonprofit grantwriting and fundraising. Adriana is passionate about translating company’s and products’ value to consumers and shaping their experience with a brand. 

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