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Big Idea winner: Solar cell phone charger that only works when malaria net is used

The grand prize winning idea in the 2011 "Big Idea" competition would help combat malaria, provide clean energy and bring high-tech convenience to the rural poor in developing countries.

Carolyn Witte '12 and Jaser Faruq '12 won the competition April 15 for their idea, Malaria TechNet, a technology-enhanced bed net that helps prevent malaria while using solar power to help residents charge cell phones and run fans to make using bed nets more comfortable.

Witte, who spent some time in Ghana, quickly discovered there that the free bed nets provided often weren't used because they were uncomfortable; many people were resigned to malaria as part of their lives and not focused on prevention. Yet, the same population was so enamored by cell phones that they would travel for days on foot to get them charged. The idea she developed with Faruq enables users to charge cell phones and use the solar power for other devices only when the net is up around the bed.

Cornell undergraduates have been working on business ideas since last fall for the competition, which was sponsored by Entrepreneurship@Cornell and was part of the Celebration 2011 event, a two-day conference that drew more than 200 alumni from across the country to campus.

In December, the students submitted 112 ideas, which were whittled down to 25 and then to a final 12. This final group of students had access to alumni, faculty and staff mentors as they prepared their final three-minute pitches, delivered to a panel to alumni entrepreneur judges April 15. The contest was managed this year by Paulette Hricko, MBA '11, a fellow with eLab, the student business accelerator in Collegetown.

The Statler Hotel ballroom was filled to capacity for the final pitches, which included both for-profit and nonprofit ideas. Interestingly, four of the five winners would qualify as social enterprise ideas for their commitment to solving a social problem, from health care issues in this country and abroad to the need to develop more renewable energy sources.

From a bamboo forestry program to provide safe housing for villages destroyed by Haiti's earthquake to a mobile phone application that would offer tailored entertainment options based on your location, undergraduates showed initiative and creativity in their proposals.

Sophomore Alisha Vimawala's idea, which won first runner-up, would give Tompkins County transit bus riders real-time updates on their bus using GPS devices on each bus to track their exact location. The app would be supported by advertisers who could reach travelers headed to their location with special offers.

The Americaid Initiative, a medical training program similar to Americorps that won second runner-up, would help address the shortage of health care providers by providing physician assistants to underserved areas of the country, according to Scotty Brown '11, its creator, who implored the judges and audience to "help reinvent the health care system in the United States of America."

"After all, how long will it be before one of the 50 million uninsured people touches your life," he said.

Third runner-up went to Generative Kinetic Sculptures, developed by Zach Gould '11.

Fourth runner-up Lauren Braun '11 showed examples of her U.S. patent-pending bracelet, which helps mothers in developing countries remember the dates of their child's next vaccination.

"It's exciting to see what students are doing," said Emily Berger '92, one of the competition judges and a member of the Entrepreneurship@Cornell Advisory Council.

Kathy Hovis is a writer/editor for Entrepreneurship@Cornell.

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