Will the Next Bill Gates Please Step Up: Young Entrepreneurs Meet Microsoft’s Founder

Davos, Switzerland — Jan. 30, 2012 — When the world’s policymakers descend on Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, Bill Gates can usually get their attention.

This year, in between discussing food sustainability and announcing a US$750 million donation to fight AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, Gates turned his attention to a few students who hope to make a similarly outsized humanitarian mark on the world.

Team captains from the Microsoft Imagine Cup Grants winning teams, Dominik Tomicevic from Croatia, Gerardo Francisco Pérez Layedra from Ecuador, Jason Wakizaka from the United States and Mohammad Azzam from Jordan meet with Bill Gates (right) and Microsoft Executive Vice President Brad Smith (left) at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday, January 27, 2012.

Microsoft’s chairman was on hand Friday, January 27, for the introduction of the inaugural recipients of the Imagine Cup Grants, a three-year, US$3 million competitive grant program for student technology and social entrepreneurs. The winners were four student teams from Ecuador, Croatia, Jordan, and the U.S. who are using technologies such as Kinect, Windows Phone, and Bing Maps to address health, accessibility, and education issues. The winning teams will now take projects that shone at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup competition last summer to the business world, where they will form companies or nonprofits with support from Microsoft, including cash, software, and connections to investors, non-governmental organization (NGO) partners and business partners.

Earlier this month, Gates invited students to send him their ideas for improving the lives of the world’s poorest people, and he posted some of the most inspiring responses on his website. He said he saw the same level of insight and creativity in the Imagine Cup grant winners he met in Davos.

“Young people have the ideas, energy and creativity to make the world a better place,” Gates said. “We need to make sure young people – no matter what their socio-economic background – have the opportunity to make their great ideas a reality, whether it’s through startup funding, connections or mentorship.”

The Imagine Cup grants align with Microsoft’s focus on providing opportunity for young people, said Brad Smith, executive vice president of Legal and Corporate Affairs (LCA) and Microsoft’s general counsel. Smith led a roundtable discussion with Gates, Imagine Cup grant winners, and luminaries from the education, nonprofit and business worlds.

The roundtable was designed to kick start discussions on how to better address the growing “opportunity divide” for youth worldwide, Smith said. By shifting its citizenship focus, Microsoft wants to empower young people to imagine and realize their opportunities in today’s world.

“As a technology company that has so long been focused on using technology as a way to empower people, we have a special opportunity to really forge some new steps to better equip people with the knowledge, skills and education they need to be successful,” Smith said.

Microsoft has spent a decade trying to address the world’s digital divide and giving people access to technology, Smith said. Now, the company sees an “opportunity divide” emerging – a gap between those who have the access to skills and opportunities to be successful, and those who do not.

The problem is particularly acute for young people, Smith said. The world is more globally competitive, diverse, and grounded in technology than ever before. While some young people are thriving, those on the wrong side of the digital divide lack the skills, education, experience or connection to employment opportunities that are required to succeed.

Mohammad Azzam demonstrates Project Horizon to Bill Gates on Friday, January 27, 2012, at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Azzam’s team created a technology prototype designed to bring independence to quadriplegics by enabling them to operate computers on their own.

Microsoft has a number of programs that try and empower young people to change the world, he added. Some are driven globally, others locally. They include the Imagine Cup, which more than 1.4 million students have participated in since 2003; the DreamSpark program, which provides students and educators with free access to software; and Microsoft Innovation Centers, technology facilities in 42 countries that help young companies grow.

The Imagine Cup was the prominent example in Davos. All four grant winners were finalists in the Imagine Cup 2011 Worldwide Finals, a global technology competition that asks students to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges.

The “World Cup for the software geeks” is how Mohammad Azzam described the competition. Azzam, from Jordan’s Team OaSys, said the Imagine Cup was a perfect opportunity to showcase their project, Horizon. Horizon is a software and hardware system that allows people who do not have use of their hands or arms to use a computer.

As winners of an Imagine Cup grant, the team looks forward to bringing Horizon to the world.

“We have met many people who said, ‘we lost hope of being able to communicate with the world,’” Azzam said. “To us, it’s not just about getting the money. To us, it’s about giving people hope and the opportunity to do the things they think they can’t do anymore and being able to actually change other people’s lives.”

All four teams discussed their projects with the panel (and privately with Gates beforehand). It was clear that the students’ skills extended far beyond IT.

“I always wanted to be a doctor, but I changed my mind and started to study computer science,” said Dominik Tomicevic, of Croatia’s Team KiDNect. His team developed a Kinect-based physical therapy solution for children, particularly those with cerebral palsy. “This is a project combining medicine with computer science.”

Jason Wakizaka said Team LifeLens of the United States was able to succeed because of their diverse backgrounds. “Team is such an important concept in the Imagine Cup,” he said, noting his teammates had studied business development, science, and computer vision algorithms. “It really took all of us coming together to discuss a front-to-end solution we had to develop to become a winning project. “

Team LifeLens is developing an app to turn a Windows Phone into a weapon against disease. Their target: malaria, which kills thousands of young children in sub-Saharan Africa each year. They aim to “arm an army of doctors” with smartphones to go out into the field and detect malaria quickly and accurately.

Gates said there was an urgent need in the field for a tool like LifeLens. “It would be a great thing – diagnosis is very difficult right now,” he said.

Wakizaka said the team’s next step is to get a much larger sample set to test and refine their algorithms. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a huge library of samples, Gates said. “We should connect about that.”

Meanwhile, Ecuador’s Team FalconDev came up with an idea called SkillBox, an affordable solution to help children who are hearing-impaired by translating all audio received from a teacher in a classroom into sign language. A wireless headset captures the sound and sends it to the computer, and SkillBox then shows the corresponding sign for the word or phrase.

Gates noted that Team FalconDev can now turn their idea into reality with help from the Imagine Cup Grant.

“I’m optimistic about the impact that they will have on helping hearing-impaired children get a great education,” he said.

Team FalconDev’s Gerardo Francisco Pérez Layedra – Paco to his friends – is also optimistic. “Technology well-used is going to help eliminate all these barriers,” he said. “When we use technology for good, that’s when we help the people and help drop all the barriers that exist today.”

Smith noted that Microsoft has been coming to Davos for more than a decade. He called the annual meeting an important opportunity for Microsoft to build and strengthen relationships with heads of state, policymakers, and some of its biggest customers in the world. The company showcased its technology at private meetings as well as at its Vision Center, where guests could check out products such as Kinect, Surface, Skype, and new versions of Windows Phone.

“Davos is a great opportunity for people to see what we see every day inside Microsoft, which is where our products and services are going,” Smith said. “One of the things that sets us apart from others in the industry is we are so focused on how our technology can put people first. And Davos gives us an opportunity not only to share with a very influential group our vision for using technology to empower people, but it also gives us an opportunity to learn from a very influential group of people their best ideas on where we need to continue to go with our products and services for the future.”

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