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Young Entrepreneurs Showcase Innovation at 2007 Imagine Cup


This year more than 100,000 students from 100 countries took part in the world’s premier student technology competition, the Imagine Cup. The competition is culminating this week with the Worldwide Finals in Seoul, Korea, where nearly 350 students from 59 countries are competing.

This annual competition is one way Microsoft challenges students to use the magic of technology to help solve the world’s toughest problems. This year Microsoft called on young programmers, artists and technologists around the globe to “Imagine a world where technology enables a better education for all.” Entries were considered in the categories of technology solutions, skills challenges and digital arts.

“The Imagine Cup epitomizes Microsoft’s belief in inspiring the next generation of technology, business and entrepreneurial leaders,” says Joe Wilson, Microsoft’s director of academic initiatives. “These are the best and the brightest student minds from around the world. The solutions they have built to compete in the Imagine Cup can literally make a difference in the world.”

Past Winners Find Their Way

Over its five-year history, the Imagine Cup has seen a number of student teams turn their software designs into real-world business realities. The 2003 Imagine Cup winner Tu Nguyen is one such example. His winning application, called “HotPad,” began as a way to help his parents operate their restaurant.

“Once I became a junior, I needed to get out of the restaurant business,” says Tu Nguyen, who as a college junior developed a PDA application that could translate orders between the wait staff and the kitchen. “So I started to figure out ways to help my parents while I wasn’t there. They are Vietnamese and speak little English.”

Nguyen’s application tackles a problem prevalent in many restaurants, especially those with ethnic cuisines — while the wait staff may speak English, often the kitchen staff does not.

“You can order by number, but if you have something extra added to it, or something tailored to their particular customer, it’s very hard to communicate that with the chef,” says Nguyen. “So I saw that as a challenge, and came up with an idea to create a PDA application that represents the ticket. Once the order is entered into the PDA, the data gets transferred to a server that translates it into whatever language the chef in the kitchen would like to see.”

The concept of the HotPad application fit the Imagine Cup competition well — using technology to create a solution that solves a real-world problem. Nguyen’s application emerged as the worldwide champion, and since then, he says, his life has changed dramatically.

“After the Imagine Cup, things started to click for me because people see the potential in the student,” he says. “It’s not about the grades anymore. It’s about what the student can imagine and deliver.”

After winning the cup, Nguyen went back to his hometown and talked with DOCCENTER, a company he had previously interned for.

“Their current business model wasn’t allowing the company to grow in the Omaha area, so I teamed up with the founder to recreate the business model, with myself in charge of IT,” he says. “I used my Imagine Cup coverage to get into the door of local businesses. We pushed our document imaging solution and showed them what it could actually do for the business, and that model has worked for us.”

Within the first year, says Nguyen, DOCCENTER was able to generate $500,000 in revenue with just two employees. They then hired three more people, and the year after that the company surpassed a million dollars in revenue.

“That’s when we knew our company had some potential,” says Nguyen. “I went and talked to a few investors and said, let’s create a product and really try to market it and become that $10 or $15 million company, or possibly $100 million down the road.”

While investors are normally wary of 25-year-olds with big ideas, Nguyen’s success was enough to sway them. He was able to secure $750,000 to create a product, then another $1.5 million to help expand its reach.

“Hopefully within three months we’re going to raise even more for the national campaign,” he says. “And that’s where I’m at today.”

According to Wilson, Nguyen’s story is an example of everything the Imagine Cup represents —to showcase how bright young minds can use software to address a real-world issue, and in turn, show that anything is possible.

“Nguyen represents the potential that all of these student developers in the Imagine Cup have, they are so smart that any one of them can take this leap if they want,” Wilson says. “He is now an entrepreneur, creating jobs and running a business. That’s really exciting for us, because it represents what the Imagine Cup is here for, to help them chase and catch their dreams.”

Making Musigy

Wilson also points to 2005 Imagine Cup winners Stan Vonog and Nick Surin from Russia, who created a unique method for musicians to jam online across great distances. Known as “Musigy,” Vonog and Surin are working to build the premier social network for live music entertainment on the Internet.

“Imagine a guitarist in one city, a bass player in another city and a drummer in a third city. They can play together, live, synchronized, with high-quality sound,” says Vonog. “The theme of Imagine Cup 2005 was ‘dissolving boundaries between people.’ Nick and I were playing guitar together and thought, what dissolves boundaries between people better than music? That’s when we realized this could be something really big.”

Since winning the Cup two years ago, Vonog and Surin have been building out their solution further, creating a business model and beta testing their technology. Already they’ve hosted three major concerts, including a New Years 2007 concert broadcast live on Russian National TV No. 1. The musicians played “Podmoskovnyye Vechera” ("Moscow Nights”) together over the Musigy Internet bridge, with balalaikas in Moscow joining violin players in Tbilisi, Georgia — 1,000 miles away.

“We also enabled ‘Jazz @ the Speed of Light’ during the Koktebel jazz festival, where world famous musicians jammed together in different cities, from Oxford to Kiev to Moscow,” Vonog says.

According to Vonog and Surin, these events have drawn media attention around the world—across Russia, the U.S., Europe and Japan. They were even featured during Microsoft chairman Bill Gates’ 2006 trip to Moscow where Russia’s young innovators were highlighted.

After years of building their software offering and fine-tuning their business model, Musigy is set to launch publicly in September. While registration is not yet available, they are accepting emails from interested parties, and it looks like Musigy could really take off.

“I think from what we have received so far it could be several thousand people joining up in the first month,” says Surin.

But while creating a groundbreaking technology is one thing, both Vonog and Surin admit that turning an idea into a business is quite another. To that end, the Musigy team participated in an offshoot of Imagine Cup known as the Innovation Accelerator program — a two-week course designed to help would-be entrepreneurs take their world class technology and work on making it a commercial reality.

Innovation Accelerator was created in cooperation with BT to help ensure that the Imagine Cup fulfills its mission of helping young people create new businesses, foster innovation, contribute to local and national economies — in short, to realize their full potential as innovators and great young minds. A total of six finalists are selected by an independent panel of judges to participate in this program.

“For Imagine Cup, the main thing is the inspiration and idea,” says Surin. “For real life, the business model is more important. So it was a reality check to help us make sure we’re building and shaping a product that will actually be used by musicians and entertainers and fans globally.”

According to Wilson, with experts from Microsoft and BT, as well as discussions with venture capitalists and other business experts, Innovation Accelerator allows the students to dive in and take the software applications they’ve built to the next level — by creating a solid business plan to shop around to venture capitalists, secure funding, and make their fledgling idea a viable business.

“There is a strong entrepreneurial theme that is part of what we do with the Imagine Cup,” Wilson says. “The ideas and software these students have created can have real market value and potential to become commercial ventures, and successful ones at that. Innovation Accelerator is designed to give select students additional resources to take the great work they did for the Imagine Cup and deliver it to the world.”

For Surin and Vonog, it’s all part of a great adventure that began when two friends with guitars and technical savvy began jamming — and imagining.

“In the Imagine Cup, there are a lot of great people, and a lot of brilliant new ideas,” he says. “It was one of the brightest years of my life creating a product for the Imagine Cup, and it was an amazing atmosphere and spirit, being there in Japan, being there in Brazil, being there in Spain. Frankly speaking, the Imagine Cup has completely changed my life.”

The Imagine Cup, now in its fifth year, challenges students to imagine a better world enabled by their own talent and also to contribute directly to the future of technology, software and computing. Teams develop innovative technological and artistic projects that offer real-world solutions to real-world problems. Additionally, Imagine Cup compliments Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential commitment to create social and economic opportunity through programs and products that transform education, foster local innovation and enable jobs and opportunities worldwide.


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