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'Big Idea' finalists compete with their solar cooker, baby vital-sign bracelet and anti-crime pink purses

With ideas ranging from a solar cooker to help third-world residents fry tortillas to a monitor that alerts parents to a change in their baby's vital signs, undergraduates have come up with a host of clever "big ideas" that they hope will net them $2,500 in "The Big Idea" competition.

Twelve ideas -- seven business enterprise and five social enterprise plans to help solve a pressing social need -- will compete in the finals of the competition, set for 4 p.m. April 16 in the Statler Hotel Ballroom. The event is free and open to the public.

"The Big Idea," sponsored by Entrepreneurship@Cornell and the Student Agencies eLab, is a part of E@C's Celebration 2010, which also includes a dinner and speech by the 2010 Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year Lubna Olayan '77.

Winners will be selected by a panel of judges, aided by the audience, 4-6 p.m., April 16, Statler Hotel Ballroom; anyone can vote for their favorite idea online.

Finalist Lauren McHugh '10, for example, is hoping her Bright Pink idea could help solve crime problems in Africa and other countries. Her inexpensive pink purses would be carried by women affiliated with a mobile banking system that uses mobile transactions instead of cash. The purses would alert would-be criminals that the woman isn't carrying cash.

McHugh developed the idea after spending last fall in Capetown, South Africa, where she interned with a microfinance organization and met many victims of street robberies.

"As a psychology major, I know it's tough to change the mindsets of criminals," she said. "Then I thought of my obnoxious bright pink purse, which I bought just for fun, but which truly stands out the whole way across the Arts Quad. I thought about what it would mean if your purse indicates you're not carrying cash."

Alice Yu '10, a member of Engineers for a Sustainable World, has been involved with that group's solar oven team, which develops solar-cooking systems for people in impoverished countries. The ovens can replace the need for cooking with wood, brush or even dung to reduce pollution and deforestation, but they can't cook tortillas, which need a hot surface at 400 to 450 degrees, Yu said.

Her team has designed an inexpensive concentrating cooker that would focus sunlight on a point to allow the cook to fry something on a pan or griddle. Yu created the initial prototype from cereal boxes and foil in her apartment. Her team later built a larger prototype that they've been testing.

Another "green" idea in the competition features solar-powered, energy-efficient windows, called SunScreen. The windows would be controlled by sensors and would include low-emissivity shades, which could be lowered during warm weather to keep the sun's rays out, but raised during colder weather to allow solar radiation indoors, explained Matt Goldwasser '10, a member of Cornell's Solar Decathlon Team.

He estimates that the window would cost no more than $50 more than standard windows but reduce heating and cooling costs by 50 percent in most applications.

"I'm seriously considering pursuing this after graduation," Goldwasser said.

Another finalist in the business enterprise track of the competition involves rBaby, a monitoring system that allows parents to keep track of their child over a wireless connection. The rBaby sensor would integrate a number of sensors into a bracelet worn by the child, explained Jillian Gorsuch '10. Information would be sent to a server, which would analyze the vitals and alert parents to any problems. If parents didn't respond, the system would automatically alert emergency responders.

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

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