Aditya Aggarwal wants to help college students in pain to get the mental care they need.
As cofounder of the startup Glia, which hopes to make an app to easily and anonymously connect students and eventually underserved populations with trained counselors in their own communities, Aggarwal and his teammates want to “increase access to mental health support so people can be more effective in their lives,” he said.
Aggarwal plans to turn his team’s idea into a validated concept through the Min Family Engineering Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, now entering its second year. Unlike other business model contests, the Min Family Challenge focuses as much on addressing major social issues as with profit making.
On Thursday, Nov. 17, members of the seven teams chosen for the competition attended the official kickoff in the Ming Hsieh Boardroom in Ronald Tutor Hall. There, students met with team mentors, sampled tasty hors d’oeuvres and learned more about this prestigious contest, with $35,000 in prize money at stake, including a $25,000 grand prize.
“We believe this is perhaps the first and only such program in the country that includes engineering,” USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos said.
A record 50 teams competed for the coveted spots. Among them: Instagreen, which is developing a reward-based app that helps people track, measure and improve green living habits; Planty, which is making a wall-mounted hydroponic garden so city dwellers can grow produce at home; and Water Conservation System, which hopes to produce a modular and customizable grey-water treatment system.
“I’m excited by the outpouring of interest and the impact these teams will have,” said Andrea Belz, USC Viterbi vice dean of technology innovation and entrepreneurship.
The business model contest, inspired by the success of the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition, or MEPC, encourages would-be social entrepreneurs to build businesses that benefit underprivileged parts of our society or in underdeveloped countries worldwide, ranging from technological problems facing under-served communities to providing access to clean water and affordable energy in developing countries.
Participants will attend workshops developed by Innovation Node-Los Angeles that focus on customer acquisition, business modeling, interviewing techniques and social entrepreneurship. Each team must have at least one USC Viterbi undergraduate or graduate student and will work with a volunteer industry mentor.
Participating teams will receive a $2,500 National Science Foundation I-Corps mini-grants to offset prototype development costs and travel and other expenses for customer discovery interviews. The competition could also award a total of up to $10,000 in implementation research grants. The competition will take place over the next six months, with three to four semifinalists announced in March and the grand-prize winner in April.
In recent years, USC Viterbi has become a burgeoning center of innovation and entrepreneurship. With MEPC, the NSF I-Corps Node headquartered on campus, the USC Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program, and the HackSC hackathon, USC Viterbi students have more opportunities than ever to develop innovative business models and explore commercialization of technologies.
The Min Family Challenge meets a growing demand from engineering and other students, said Greg Autry, a USC Marshall School of Business assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship and Min Family Challenge education coordinator.
“This entire generation has been brought up on social mission issues,” said Autry, who also teaches in USC Marshall’s Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. “They’re interested in green technology and solving global problems. And this competition gives students the chance to get involved.”
Added Peter Beerel, Min Family Challenge director: “This gives engineers who want to make a societal impact the tools and know-how to make that a reality.”
The Min Family Challenge launched in October 2015 with a generous gift from Bryan Min, B.S. ISE ’86 and a member of the USC Viterbi Board of Councilors, and his family: Julie Min, a UCLA alumna, who worked on Capitol Hill on the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee before raising their two children; their son Brandon, a USC Viterbi student in industrial systems engineering; and daughter Brittany, a USC freshman who hopes to major in engineering and music.
FlexSpecs, a startup that plans to produce inexpensive glasses with adjustable lenses that require no prescription, won the inaugural Min Family Challenge. Byran Min said he and his family were “blown away by the quality of the teams, which were way beyond our imagination.”
The Mins have long legacy of philanthropy to USC and beyond. In 2000, the family established the ESSential Foundation, which funds military support organizations, caregivers of wounded soldiers, international micro-finance, Christian and educational organizations as well as community programs that support troubled youth. The Mins have also supported fellowships at the university.
“We want to help the underserved and those less fortunate than us,” Julie Min said.