For the visually impaired and blind, life is a never-ending series of challenges. Just walking down the sidewalk could mean risking injury from inadvertently walking into unseen objects or people.
Worldwide, there are an estimated 39 million people with blindness and 285 million with vision problems. Poor eyesight often translates into poor economic and health outcomes, with the visually impaired twice as likely to live in poverty and four times more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression.
SIER Technologies, a startup founded by USC undergraduate students, hopes to help alleviate some of the suffering. The burgeoning firm is developing a specially outfitted pair of glasses with built-in speakers, cameras and sensors that connects to a phone app. The SIER glasses issue a verbal warning, followed by increasingly loud noises, when a visually impaired of blind person nears an unseen object, giving them time to alter their path.
That vision landed SIER the $50,000 grand prize at the 2023 Min Family Challenge, an engineering startup competition that encourages would-be social entrepreneurs to build companies to benefit the underprivileged locally, nationally, and even worldwide. Educational sessions, workshops, and meetings were held virtually throughout the academic year with the finals held on Wednesday, April 19.
“Our team dove into this challenge, and winning is such an awesome moment for us,” said Henry Fox, a sophomore at the Iovine and Young Academy and founder of SIER, adding that the team plans to use its prize money for further product development and beta testing. “We look forward to taking our company to the next stage.”
USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos said MFC contributes to a better tomorrow.
“This remarkable competition inspires our students to innovate on how to solve important human-centric problems with direct societal impact,” he said. “In today’s world where technology and humanity are more intertwined than ever, the MFC provides the right framework for guiding the future.”
Added Trina Gregory, MFC co-director and associate director of the Office of Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or TIE: “MFC teaches students to identify real problems out there and innovate to develop real solutions.”
“It’s about helping the underprivileged”
MFC 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: his wife Julie Min; their son Brandon, a USC Viterbi graduate in industrial systems engineering; and daughter Brittany, also a USC graduate.
At the contest, Bryan Min said he and his family had made a good decision in supporting social entrepreneurship by creating MFC. “Where do you put your blessings?” he asked. “Well, look around at the brilliant minds in this room – the students.”
Julie Min echoed her husband’s sentiments.
“I look up to you all, young people with beautiful minds. You’re gifted,” she said. “We’re sure you’ll go a long way in the business world. But once you’re there, what is it all about? It’s about helping the underprivileged. I’m glad that you’re focusing on that.”
This year, 54 teams applied for the MFC, compared to 21 the previous year. Twenty-five teams were selected to participate, while five advanced to the finals, said David Gerber, MFC co-director and TIE associate director. He said the quality of the interdisciplinary teams impressed him.
“Viterbi is leading the charge in its inclusivity and in its social impact,” Gerber said.
The other 2023 MFC finalists included:
DroneCo: Building low-noise, fully autonomous delivery drones to deliver critical medical supplies directly to customers’ doorsteps by partnering with hospitals and pharmaceutical firms.
MatchAPro: A healthcare software that matches surgeons looking to travel to Southern Africa to perform pro bono procedures with underserved patients in public hospitals.
Pπ: The aim of Pπ is to design, develop and evaluate an autonomous cyber physical system that reduces plastics reaching oceans; can be used by any consumer in under resourced regions.
Raise A Glass: Creating wine with a purpose by bringing innovative storytelling technology to raise awareness of the invisible heroes of global crises. The startup’s mission starts in Ukraine. As Americans have become increasingly desensitized to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Raise a Glass pairs heroic stories of Ukrainian civilian resistance with a bottle of wine. Consumers can watch these powerful stories through augmented reality on a wine label.
As in the past couple of challenges, this year’s MFC theme was inspired by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives of people everywhere.
Participants in this year’s challenge attended workshops that focused on customer discovery, storytelling, law, and business modeling. The challenge also distributed grant money for prototyping.
Nicholas Conner, a second-year MBA student at the USC Marshall School of Business, said he found the sessions valuable. “MFC taught us how to build a business model that allows us to be scalable and sustainable, while also ensuring that we are still benefiting those at the center of our mission and cause,” he said.
Sandra Lara Galindo, a second-year Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering and member of MatchAPro, said MFC taught her the basics of starting a business, invaluable knowledge that she previously lacked.
“I learned about startups, finance, business models and how to pitch ideas,” she said. “I mostly learned about things I didn’t get the chance [to study] during my formative years in engineering.”
MFC participants also benefited from working with volunteer mentors, who helped them hone their ideas and develop business strategies.
Daniel Druhora, a lecturer, director of new initiatives at USC Viterbi, and MFC mentor, said he taught participants “how to tell their story, how to connect with their audience on an emotional and intellectual level so that their ideas are funded and adopted.”
Challenge judges included Julie Power Pantiskas, CEO & president at The Flavor of California; USC Chief Sustainability Officer Mick Dalrymple; Stephanie Hannon, senior director of product management at Google; Molly Crete, senior program manager at Los Angeles Cleantech; Raina Kumra, founder of SpiceWell; and John Davies, senior vice president of GreenBiz Executive Network.
MFC constantly evolving
MFC has consistently evolved over the years.
In 2018, MFC took USC Viterbi and other students to Texas to meet with Hurricane Harvey survivors. Participants focused on developing sustainable ventures to enhance relief and recovery efforts for victims of that and other natural disasters.
In 2019, the challenge focused on the world’s growing refugee crisis. As part of a special class, CE 499: Engineering Innovation for Global Challenges, students went to Lesvos, Greece, to meet with refugees and devise innovative solutions to meet the needs of people in crisis.
The 2021 winner, Social Benefit, aims to help end cyclical homelessness and poverty by creating a digital platform that brings transparency to government benefits for low-income populations and their case managers. Last year’s victor, Remedy, has developed a flexible container and wearable pouch that allow unhoused people to protect their medication from would-be thieves.
“MFC has a really strong social impact agenda, which separates it from most other business model competitions,” said Gerber, the challenge co-director.” “Students are taking their educations and using the opportunity to affect the lives of others in a positive way.”
Published on April 25th, 2023
Last updated on April 25th, 2023