Huntsman Post

USU students compete at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup

By Sterling Morris

When last spring semester began, I never expected that within a matter of weeks I would find myself in the ballroom of a beautiful museum in Washington, D.C., with filmmaker James Cameron and a host of other powerful executives.

I didn’t know at the time that I would join a Utah State University team that would enter the Microsoft Imagine Cup and become a finalist in the competition that drew 22,000 applicants. It was Microsoft Executive Anthony Salcito who eventually stood to say: “Second place goes to: AidVenture.”

The team poses for a picture in Washington, D.C. They are, from left to right, Susanna Beck, Yiding Han, Cal Coopmans, Josh Light, John Johnson and Sterling Morris.

Our creation, AidVenture, placed second at the event that Bill Gates has called “the Olympics of great ideas.” The Imagine Cup is an annual software design and game development competition that attracts students from around the globe. More than 300,000 high school and college students entered this year’s contest, making it the largest competition of its kind in the world.

Each year, Microsoft challenges its Imagine Cup competitors with a new and unique theme. This year’s theme was, “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.” Teams were to focus their software design or game development around one of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and solve some of the world’s toughest problems, such as achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality and eradicating extreme hunger and poverty.

My team began preparing a Facebook application targeted at the United Nations’ goal of eliminating poverty. The application could potentially allow 500 million Facebook users to connect to a large, unfunded population of entrepreneurs in developing nations who are seeking microloans to advance their businesses. Through the application, Facebook users can look at various entrepreneurs throughout the world and individually select and invest in those they would like to help.

Cal Coopmans greets Microsoft executive Craig Mundie. - Photo by Sterling Morris

We tapped people from several disciplines to put together our proposal. Yiding Han and Cal Coopmans, doctoral students in electrical and computer engineering, played key roles. Huntsman School of Business senior Josh Light, who is majoring in entrepreneurship, economics and finance, served as a highly effective team spokesman during the event. Susanna Beck, a general education major, was also part of the team. We benefited from the advice of John Johnson, head of the Management Information Systems Department, who went with us to Washington, D.C.

All the competitors were required to produce short films introducing their technology. I headed this portion of the project and produced a short film which can be seen here.

I was especially passionate about the project our team selected because of the experience I had with micro-lending through the SEED program at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business in the summer of 2009 in Trujillo, Peru. There, I talked with entrepreneurs. I walked through their communities. I saw first-hand the challenges they faced.

After sending our idea and business plan to Microsoft, we were selected as one of ten software-design finalists in the nation. Microsoft flew us to Washington, D.C., for a four-day retreat where we presented our software, toured the U.S. Capitol and met with industry leaders.

Film director James Cameron was one of the leaders invited to come to the competition. Mr. Cameron spoke during the final day of the event and encouraged students to continue their pursuit of technology education.

Josh Light talks about his group’s Facebook application at the Microsoft Imagine Cup. - Photo by Sterling Morris

A highlight for me was the opportunity we had to meet with Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie. We told him about our project and how we believe it will have a positive impact on world poverty. Mr. Mundie seemed very knowledgeable about micro-lending and was impressed with the concept we developed.

We are now seeking approval from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Once we obtain legal authorization, we can begin issuing micro-loans through Facebook. You can see our Facebook application here. It will be fully functional following SEC approval.

Most of us expect to discover challenging and rewarding opportunities for career growth when we graduate. However, we go to school in a building that has giant banners over the entrances challenging us to “Dare Mighty Things.” We decided to create an opportunity not only for ourselves but for entrepreneurs across the globe. I believe we’ve created a way for anyone to “Dare Mighty Things” by investing in ventures launched by hard-working people who want to make a difference.