On Wednesday, Stanford’s Arrillaga Alumni Center hosted around 100 teams of innovators in what might be the science fair to end all science fairs. For the students, it was a chance to flex their creative muscles, show off their creations, and maybe even walk away with the $50,000 grand prize. For onlookers, it was a glimpse into the future from a crop of young minds that have only just begun to shape it.
The Product Showcase event, as it’s called, was put together by BASES, the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students. BASES is comprised of undergraduate and graduate students and is perhaps the largest student group at the school. It’s also one of the largest (and oldest) student-run entrepreneurship organizations in the world. Founded in 1996, the group began with five Stanford grad students who figured that they needed to include a little business savvy with their engineering curriculum. BASES now has a sort of holistic view towards product creation, being an interdisciplinary team with members from business, engineering, law, medicine, humanities and other schools at Stanford.
Wednesday’s event is just one third of BASES’ $150,000 challenge, which includes the Entrepreneurial Challenge and the Social E-Challenge completed earlier this year. Unlike the other two competitions, which involved business plans, the focus of the showcase is easily surmised: Teams built products and showed them off. Fliers for the event dubbed it, “a science fair on steroids.” Anyone was allowed to enter, though at least one member of a team had to be affiliated with the school. Besides the prize money, the event offered teams an arena to publicize their ideas and network with like-minded enthusiasts.
Copy for the event touted notable Stanford names such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin, implying that any one of the innovators in the hall could be the next name dominating tech news. Mark Zuckerberg’s shadow also generated buzz, with good reason since social media projects took up a good portion of the booths.
Website ideas spanned the gamut from homework help to full sensory luxury shopping (modewalk.com); invite-only food communities to help you find the perfect chef for dinner parties (kitchit.com); Facebook interest organizing; a social search engine that mines relevant data from your network to answer your questions (qwhisper.com). TechCrunch favorite ChompOn, the niche group buying deals platform, also had a booth and ran out of business cards quickly.
There were plenty of apps as well, such as NeedRouter, an altruistic app which finds ways to connect people within communities such as dorms, to request and fulfill needs. MadPad allows people to sample everyday sounds and noises to create music — I walked in on the presenter making a song out of bicycle sounds. Other apps were simple in focus and design, like eggaduppa: a massive rock-paper-scissors game with 1,000 people, all playing for $1,000 as the prize.
Other ideas were designed to fight poverty, spur energy conservation, improved medical technology or manifested as just plain cool consumer items. Looking for the cream of the crop? Read on for our top 10 favorite student innovation’s from Stanford’s BASES conference.
The Solar Cloud team’s aircraft demanded your attention as soon as you walked into the hall. There may have been more innovative products, but every good entrepreneur knows that crowds love a huge spectacle. One of the team’s engineers told me that the remote-controlled, quad-rotor hybrid airship prototype is currently heavier than air, and they had to take off the solar panels and other equipment for the showcase; but the idea is long-term persistent flight, if not forever. With a video camera strapped to it, the airship would be an economical surveillance and communication tool for remote areas. The solar panels would keep it powered for cheap, and for long periods of time. I asked the engineer if he secretly had any diabolical super villainy airship fantasies, and he told me that with only four pounds of lift the ship would have to be at least three times bigger to support his weight.
The promoter behind mOasis could have easily been on a soap box with a top hat, cane and green-tinted bottle. He pulled me aside to tell me about an ancient 70-year-old Chinese polymers at work in the product, apparently created by a chemist from UC Davis. The miracle compound absorbs 400 times its own weight in water, and could allow farmers to get a 10 to 50 percent better crop yield. Compared to other water storage materials, it costs less and lasts longer. It is also completely non-toxic, biodegradable and FDA approved.
I was corrected when I asked how the “motorized skateboard” works. Unlike a skateboard, the Transboard is like a “freeboard” that goes in two directions — scratch that — it’s like a Segway crossed with a freeboard. It goes in multiple directions and goes uphill. At max, it goes about 20 MPH. When I asked about safety similarities between the Segway and the Transboard, I was told that they were appealing to “board culture,” meaning you’ll probably need a helmet at the very least.
The Unplugged team’s row was constantly choked with onlookers. I finally managed to bully my way in towards the end of the event to see where the music I’d been hearing all afternoon was coming from. The Unplugged G-Zero Electric Guitar was almost ukelele sized at just over two feet long, and had a 5-inch speaker embedded in it. It had two single-coil pickups and controls for volume, gain and tone. The idea was to carry your amp in your guitar—something you may have seen already, but usually with flat and tinny sound. The team plans to upgrade the eight AA batteries currently needed to power it to a rechargeable design, and give it smartphone capabilities to introduce special effects generated by an iPhone.
Percolater prepares your news feed for you and stores it locally on your device. The idea of this news reader is that, like a coffee drip (witty), the information drips and is collected into your pot (the device). It’s handy because your pages are saved for you even when you don’t have a connection. It’s also fast because everything has been saved and doesn’t need to load.
What is Wanic? It’s a simple tool kit that allows you to ferment your own coconut juice wine. All you need is the kit, six days, 12 steps and a coconut, and you’ve got yourself a sweet wine with 10 percent alcohol by volume. The compact kit comes with a hole puncher and ceramic parts for removing fiber, fermenting and serving. The presenter told me that Wanic could be a solution for those impoverished but with access to a lovely bunch of coconuts; though she probably meant by selling the alcohol. It might also make a handy tool for those hiking through island-y, coconut-abundant territories.
I’m a sucker for the self-sustaining lifestyle, and ever since I saw Ed Begley with a solar oven, I’ve wanted one portable enough to pack into my zombie apocalypse kit. The parabolic inflatable oven focuses the sun’s rays onto a thermally conductive pot, heating water without electricity or fuel and in a package that collapses down for portability. The team actually plans on distributing the lightweight CookSack at no cost in trial areas of Botswanna and Kenya in August. They say the solar oven would be ideal for washing, cooking as well as water purification.
Dr. Caleb B. Bell (bellbiosystems.com) piqued my interest with talk of cellular regeneration. Thoughts of graphic Wolverine comic scenes danced in my head. Dr. Bell said he aims to create technology that will help some of the problems faced in stem cell research, regenerative medicine and cellular-based therapeutic. The problem with injecting cells is finding non-invasive ways of tracking, anatomic homing and localization for the injected cells and finding a way to kill off an injected cell just in case something goes wrong. His solution? Creating zombie soldier cells by putting non-dilutive “nanomagnets” into the cells. The truly interesting part of his patent-protected solution is that the magnetic stamp does not dilute when the cells divide, nor does it involve mucking about in the genome area. Pretty nifty, bub.
Mr. Parker’s booth looked like a little kid’s lemonade stand. He even advertised a “$10 set-up” scrawled on a small cardboard sign. Small LED lights on the bottom of these bottles corresponded to volume and sound from the music he was playing, translating the electronic frequency to fluorescent liquid in the bottles and lighting them up accordingly. He assured me that every necessary component aside from the empty bottles would be included in the $10.
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