From solar power to soccer, the winners of this year’s Clark University Ureka Big Idea Challenge are set to energize the world, quite literally, with their entrepreneurial ideas. The students — who range from a first-year to a graduate student — had five minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of accomplished alumni judges at the program’s annual Pitch Night, held March 29 in the Higgins Lounge in Dana Commons.
Krissy Truesdale ’19 took the top $2,500 prize for her nonprofit Solar for Our Superheroes, which thanks local leaders, like veterans, teachers, firefighters and police officers, for their service with solar panels for their homes. Her goal is to help people save money each month while showing the positive potential uses for renewable energy in Massachusetts.
Truesdale came up with the idea for the project after watching her grandfather, a firefighter, work two additional full-time jobs to help meet expenses.
“I wished I could thank these heroes (as I viewed them) in some way, perhaps ease their sacrifice just a bit,” she said. “At the same time, I’m passionate about renewable energy, and when I found out that Massachusetts was (one of) the best states in the country to do solar financially, I was dumbfounded. I’d never seen it around, and many people used to think solar didn’t work in New England.”
She said funds won from the challenge are going to launch a pilot project for a family of four — a nurse, firefighter and their two children — who live in Marblehead, Mass. She’s already raised about $4,000 in grants on the way to an estimated total of $15,000 for the system, and expects to raise the remainder from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign during the spring and summer in hopes of an August installation.
“This pilot project is expected to be our most difficult, but after that each system we install will help fund future systems as our heroes are donating back to us the Solar Renewable Energy Credits (or SRECs) produced from their system for the next 10 years,” she said.
Lelani Williams, a graduate student pursuing a dual M.B.A./M.A. in Community Development and Planning, won $1,250 for Sun Top Solar Cookers, a woman-managed solar cooker production business in rural Haiti.
While traveling to developing countries on short-term missions, she saw a need to develop a way for residents of poor villages to support and empower themselves. On a May 2015 trip to Haiti with a Clark contingent, she saw Professor Jude Fernando use a solar cooker to make a meal. The project came together from there after further discussions with women farmers and villagers.
“It wasn’t until I heard the woman farmers say they wanted to be empowered to learn a new skill and work in an industry other than agriculture that I knew there was a space for the solar cooker in the Haitian marketplace,” she said.
Williams, who will graduate next month, has her eye on the future.
“The Ureka Challenge helped me develop my idea, and the award money is the start of bringing the concept to fruition,” Williams said. “I will need to raise more money, and the process will be long. However, I am looking forward to the challenge as well as the reward of helping other women move to their next level.”
Mohamed Elmaola ’18 also won $1,250 for his organization, the Worcester Soccer House, which works with schools and nonprofits in the city to offer free soccer activities to children ages 3 through 13 who otherwise couldn’t afford to play. Elmaola founded the grassroots organization with another Worcester student — Dimitri Savidis, who attends the College of the Holy Cross — to empower young people through athletic development and character building while highlighting Worcester’s diversity. (They’ve already been featured in the Telegram & Gazette and Worcester Magazine).
Elmaola said the idea “caught its first breath nearly a year ago while I was studying on the fifth floor of the Clark University library” after a text message from Savidis.
“We had an idea that, after hours of reflection, discourse and arguments, finally caught wind in the summer of 2015,” he said. “Dimitri and I decided that we wanted to coach young kids in a game that we have been playing our whole lives: fútbol. More importantly, we wanted to bring the game to kids who can’t afford to play.”
They, along with a core founding team of Daniel Bushe, who attends Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Kevin Louis, a Clark senior, conducted research, engaged with the community and found their first mentor at Clark, Entrepreneur-in-Residence Shari Worthington. They partnered with the YMCA Central Community Branch, which provided a field to use free of charge, and various small businesses to fund basic equipment, like nets, balls and cones.
“After assembling a team of 12 dedicated coaches, we launched our Fall session in September 2015, and were fortunate enough to serve more than 60 mostly low-income and minority youth,” he said.
Elmaola said the group would use their prize money on new soccer equipment as well as on fees to make the group an official nonprofit organization.
The Ureka Big Idea Challenge, which began in 2008, is a springboard for students’ entrepreneurial ideas, many of which are geared toward making a positive impact in greater society.
“This program is essential for helping students develop an entrepreneurial mindset and abilities,” said Amy A. Whitney, director of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Program at Clark. “It’s an opportunity for our students to develop skills for the economy we live in today, a fast-paced, constantly changing marketplace.”
Any Clark student can apply for the challenge and receive mentoring from Clark alumni, part-time faculty and community partners.
“Our philosophy is that every idea is worth students going through the process of shaping their idea,” Whitney said.
This year, 16 teams submitted plans, 11 teams finished the mentoring process — during which teams begin to refine their ideas, according to Whitney — and seven were selected as finalists.
Beginning in the fall, Whitney said students spend “hundreds of hours” developing their ideas with mentors who ensure each group understands and provides an overview of its business model, financials, reaching their target market and how to use their start-up funds, among other issues. By Pitch Night, students have spent 10 to 15 hours a week for five months on their projects, above and beyond their other academic and social commitments.
“This points to the dedication of the students,” Whitney said, adding that students do a lot of “soul searching” about themselves and the project during that time.
On Pitch Night, judges evaluate the finalists’ projects based on five criteria: feasibility of concept, readiness of the team, strengths of operation and business model, realistic use of start-up funds and overall quality of the pitch and plan, according to Whitney.
Past Ureka Big Idea Challenge winners include start-ups focused on sustainability, like 2015 winner Agraponics, which seeks to sell sustainable food production systems and technology to improve food security in society, and 2010 winner the Clark Community Thrift Store, a student-run enterprise located on Main Street that supports sustainability initiatives by making previously owned items available at affordable prices. Other winning ideas include 2012’s The Local Root, an organic farm stand that can be found in Red Square this spring selling locally sourced produce, and 2014’s WooConnect, an app that connects Worcester college and university campuses to the community and helps students find events happening near them.
View photos from this event on our Flickr page.