More than 2 million Imagine Cup competitors change the world over 20 years of innovation
By Susanna Ray
Repost from News.Microsoft.com
Two university students stuck in pandemic lockdown during a semester abroad fell in love — and then came up with an idea that could change the way scientists and engineers around the world conduct their research.
Ahmed Kamel, an Egyptian computer science student, and Bukle Unaldi, a Turkish neuroscience major, met at Minerva University in San Francisco and were studying in Buenos Aires in 2020. Then the pandemic hit, keeping them from the lab work their degrees required. They channeled their stress into a solution: making a robotic arm that could be viewed and operated remotely, simulating an in-person laboratory experience.
Their innovation promises to be such a boon to researchers — especially from developing countries or underprivileged groups with limited access to equipment and laboratories — that the 2021 Imagine Cup judges chose the project to advance to the competition’s prestigious World Championship.
Now in its 20th year, Microsoft’s unique global technology event has had more than 2 million students from 160 countries compete for prizes including training, mentorship, technology, publicity and cash. This rich history has supported the next generation of developers and creators as they contribute to the tech industry and devise solutions for global problems.
Bukle Unaldi and Ahmed Kamel (Photo by Berfin Karaman)
“The most important thing wasn’t the money or awards but the credibility the experience gave us for our project as well as for our résumés, to help us get jobs after we graduated last year,” says Kamel.
Adds Unaldi: “Having the support of Microsoft and the recognition from showing our project to the world felt really empowering, and with that boost we managed to put a team together to work on it even further.”
The remotely operated robot created by Ahmed Kamel and Bukle Unaldi (Photo by Kamel)
More than 600 university students have used the robot, which the newly married couple patented last year. They set it up as a “third roommate” in their apartment while they look for office space in Seattle, where Kamel got a job as a robotics engineer for Amazon and Unaldi as a remote teacher for Elite Open School. They keep the robot connected 24/7 to accommodate any time zone and are creating a company, Hands-On Labs, as they prepare to expand to online K-12 schools.
The winner of this year’s Imagine Cup, announced at Microsoft’s annual Build conference for developers, was Team V Bionic from Saudi Arabia and Germany, who won the grand prize for ExoHeal, a modular exoskeletal hand rehabilitation device that uses neuroplasticity and Azure technology to provide adaptive and gamified rehabilitation exercises to people with hand paralysis.
Once dubbed “the Olympics for software design” by a WIRED magazine writer, the Imagine Cup now offers the world champion $100,000 cash, technology support and a mentorship session with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. This year, it’s drawn a broader range of competitors than ever: 67% of teams include women, and 17% are made up of high schoolers instead of the traditional university-aged students.
“Our Imagine Cup competition is a great example of the possibilities,” says Nadella, who served as a judge during his first year as CEO in 2014 and has mentored every world champion since. “For 20 years, students have shown us what’s possible when they come together to apply technology to help solve the world’s challenges.”
Last year’s grand prize winner was Team REWEBA, which crafted its name from “Remote Well Baby.”
The team members were volunteering in a hospital while studying applied computing technology at a university in Kenya when they saw the challenges faced by new mothers in rural areas. Long travel times to the hospital led to skipped monthly post-natal screenings and contributed to a high infant mortality rate. The group realized it was a problem technology could tackle and created an internet-connected monitoring device that health workers in villages can use to remotely collect a baby’s weight, height and temperature. The integrated device automatically sends the data to doctors, serving as an early warning intervention system to save babies’ lives.
“It’s a very emotional problem,” says Jeet Gohil, now a software developer who’s shepherding the prototype through production with teammate Abdihamid Abdi so it can be distributed for commercial use. “We have seen the mothers and babies suffering, and we wanted to really help them.”
But Takeuchi had no way to reach those who might need his technology and no money for development until he competed in the 2020 Imagine Cup. His team made it to the World Championship, and media attention helped foster connections with potential users, engineers and donors. He’s now a doctoral student working to improve the device’s human-like pitch and make it more comfortable to wear, and he aims to get it patented and begin selling it within two years.
“If I had not experienced the Imagine Cup, this project may have ended,” says Takeuchi, who used the prize money to hire a design engineer. “I want a lot of people to be able to use this device, and to create more applications for it.”
Masaki Takeuchi created a wearable device that helps people speak when they’ve lost use of their vocal cords. (Photos by Shoki Hattori and drawings by Yuki Ogasawara)
The list of achievements by 20 years’ worth of Imagine Cup participants is long, both with the tens of thousands of projects they submitted and ones they came up with after the competition, using what they learned and the connections they made.
“We’ve seen extremely compelling innovation as a result of the diverse, global mindset of ideas brought to the table,” Yarkoni says. “It’s our responsibility to keep this program running and help these students realize their dreams. These are smart, brilliant people, and we want to equip them for success.”