Fast Company

Microsoft Imagine Cup: Student Innovators Converge in Washington State

It's down to the final four in the U.S. nationals of the Microsoft Imagine Cup, in which student entrepreneurs develop apps and other products using Microsoft software. They all got there with a little help from what Microsoft called "academic evangelism."

Alex Ryu, now a senior at Penn, was doing an internship in the healthcare field in India when he noticed two things: that many women forgot to come in for certain appointments, and that mobile technology was ubiquitous, even in rural areas. He got to talking with his sister Annie, a sophomore at Harvard, and the two set to thinking about possible technological solutions to the problem. Today, they'll learn whether their project, Texting Towards Healthier Villages (TTHV) will be named the best of four U.S. finalists in Microsoft's Imagine Cup. If so, they'll be representing the U.S. at the world Imagine Cup this June in New York.

TTHV, which is composed of the Ryus together with Dave Amenta of Central Connecticut State University and Brandon Liu, also of Harvard, will be competing against three other student ideas, including Note-Taker, a technology that helps students take notes in class, and two others that happen to be in the healthcare space.

With the Imagine Cup, now in its ninth year, Microsoft has found a way to build brand awareness among students who might otherwise be attracted to other businesses when they graduate. When Annie decided she wanted to develop a technological solution to the maternal health problem, she eventually found her way (via an MIT entrepreneur group) to Edwin Guarin, a member of Microsoft's "Academic Evangelism Team." Guarin says his job has three main missions: To attract great students, to work with professors to get them excited about using Microsoft products in the curriculum, and to provide students access to products. Guarin played a role in helping to form the TTHV team, introducing Dave Amenta, a student skilled in Windows Phone 7 coding, to the Ryus. "We try to bridge connections and then let them do their magic," says Guarin.

None of the three team members I spoke with--the Ryus, as well as Liu--used a Windows Phone 7 themselves, though they had won free ones by making it to the nationals. The Ryu siblings each had an iPhone, and Liu had a Verizon contract on a Droid X that he said he didn't plan to abandon. The Ryus added that they intended to donate their Windows Phone 7's to rural India, where they felt the phones could do more good.

Today, the team will give a final 20-minute pitch, and stand for a 10-minute Q&A. The ultimate winner of the U.S. component of the Cup will be announced this evening.

Did their encounter with Microsoft through the Imagine Cup change the students' views of the company? "I wasn't huge onto the tech scene," says Alex, "so when Annie and I came up with this idea, I didn't have too many preconceived notions. But my interactions with Microsoft, and the work with our academic evangelist has been really fantastic and helped open my eyes to how much Microsoft supports students."

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