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At Imagine Cup finals, next generation of entrepreneurs shine

Jeremy Kirk | July 9, 2012
On Saturday, Pedro Querido of Portugal waved his arms back and forth, taming a shopping cart with a green basket that seemingly had a mind of its own.

On Saturday, Pedro Querido of Portugal waved his arms back and forth, taming a shopping cart with a green basket that seemingly had a mind of its own.

The shopping cart is no ordinary piece of equipment: it is wired to a motion-activated Kinect controller, part of Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming system but widely adapted now for a range of other uses.

The cart, called wi-Go, represented more than six months of work by Querido and his team, who were competing in Microsoft's 10th annual Imagine Cup finals in Sydney over the weekend. University students around the world compete in categories such as software design and game design.

This year, 106 teams made it to finals, vying for US$175,000 in prize money. Microsoft provides software and other tools, such as compute cycles on servers in the company's data centers, to students for free, as well as $3 million in grant money for Imagine Cup student projects.

In the early years, projects were more theoretical, dominated by students with backgrounds in computer science, engineering and math, said Walid Abu-Hadba, a Microsoft corporate vice president.

In the later years, it has become more interdisciplinary, with students incorporating team members with experience in marketing and business, Abu-Hadba said. Students are expected to come to the competition with not only strong technology but a sound business case that would enable them to turn their projects into businesses. It also is intended for students to tackle pressing issues in areas such as health care, disabilities, education and the environment.

Judges -- who come from backgrounds ranging from entrepreneurs to academics to journalists -- grill the students on all aspects of the projects, asking how they would raise funding, find customers and improve on the products. At times, it can be a tense, nerve-wracking experience: Many of the students have never given a public presentation in their lives.

"This is a very hard competition," Abu-Hadba said. "To have them go through this pressure and become experienced -- it is amazing."

The projects are not pie-in-the-sky. All finalists have put an incredible amount of thought and research into their projects. Many of the finalists have launched businesses on the back of their Imagine Cup work.

Edward Hooper of Australia won the 2008 Imagine Cup in Paris. His team created a network of sensors called the Smart Operational Agricultural Toolkit (SOAK) that gave farmers precise information on moisture in their fields and managed irrigation.

 

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