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.
“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.”
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.”
The team met weekly with mentors from Microsoft to improve the prototype’s software throughout the Imagine Cup. And the event’s high visibility brought a strong community and networking opportunities that opened numerous doors, says Khushi Gupta, who’s now studying in Texas and recently applied for a patent for the group’s work.
Yet Imagine Cup teams often gain regardless of where they place in the competition.
Zbyněk Poulíček was a runner-up in 2010 with his collaborative map — a new concept at the time — that had just enabled Czech rescue teams to guide each other toward victims trapped in rubble from a massive earthquake in Haiti. It provided navigation in difficult terrain amid the absence of identifying geographic features that had collapsed in the tremors. Poulíček had seen TV coverage of the disaster in Haiti and, in a burst of inspiration and youthful audacity, reached out to the head of a Czech nonprofit. He got an immediate call back: They needed his concept, and they needed it now.
“I realized that technology really could make a difference,” Poulíček says.
Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates featured the project in a blog post, holding it up as an example of the real-world impact Imagine Cup ideas can have, and Poulíček was invited back to give a motivational speech at the 2011 event. He and his team felt not only the responsibility but the confidence to continue improving their prototype and founded GINA Software, an acronym for Geographic Information Assistant.
Being in the Imagine Cup World Championship and getting feedback from competitors all over the globe helped prepare Poulíček for being CEO of a company that now does business in more than 50 countries, with more than 250,000 active users from humanitarian organizations and first-responder units.
“If it wasn’t for the Imagine Cup, I wouldn’t have believed I had the power to create something that can have global impact,” Poulíček says. “Now GINA is used worldwide in the most difficult situations, helping hundreds of thousands of users to stay safe.”
The competition originally was intended to get students excited about technology. The focus has narrowed over the years to building actual solutions in the categories of earth, education, healthcare and lifestyle, and projects have evolved as technology has become more accessible. Students’ entries are more sophisticated and complete, with some quickly attracting funding and becoming commercial products.
But that’s not the ultimate goal.
“The Imagine Cup is associated with our core mission: How do we help students achieve more?” says Charlotte Yarkoni, who oversees student developer programs as Microsoft’s president of Commerce and Ecosystems within the Cloud and Artificial Intelligence division. “It’s been a way to help that ecosystem and the community at large. When you reflect on the deeply personal reasons the students have come to the table, how they’re trying to help an underserved group or a community in need or even a relative, it’s been truly astounding to me. The sheer amount of innovation and the pace of innovation is unbelievable.
“This is something Microsoft is deeply invested in, empowering tomorrow’s workforce and decision makers,” Yarkoni says. “The ultimate gauge is, are we helping students go out and make an impact?”
Bianca Letti’s team won the 2015 World Championship by creating software that customized clothing patterns to fit people of all shapes and sizes and building a marketplace for seamstresses to make the garments. The team entered the competition to seek funding for their project.
But the lasting impact, Letti says, was in the skills she learned: how to structure her thoughts and speech for an elevator pitch; how to handle the pressure of being on a world stage; and how to persist in training and rehearsing, after being so nervous she forgot the second half of her three-minute pitch during the practice run for the competition’s whirlwind final round.
“I keep that for my life, so that changes everything for whatever meeting I go into,” Letti says. “It was a transforming experience for me. Before the Imagine Cup, I was a student; after the Imagine Cup, I was prepared for the world we live in.”
The competition’s theme has evolved over the years as well, from “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems” to “Dream it. Build it. Live it.” But the enduring mantra is allowing students to decide what problems and dreams they want to tackle, and how.
“The students know the problems of their communities better than anyone; we’re just providing the platform,” says Microsoft’s Pablo Veramendi, who’s managed the past seven Imagine Cup competitions. “Seeing what these students are capable of and the difference they want to make in the world fills me with hope for what this next generation of developers will be doing. They’re young, talented and driven. They dive in at full force to solve these problems.”
That’s what Masaki Takeuchi did. He was studying science and information at a Japanese university when he learned of a whole group of people around the world who are unable to use their vocal cords due to throat cancer and other illnesses. Touched by their plight, he dove into designing a wearable electronic device that creates digital sounds that mimic a person’s speech by translating the vibrations as they move their mouth and tongue.
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.”
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.”
Editor’s note — May 24, 2022 — The story above was updated to name the winner of this year’s Imagine Cup.
Top photo: Bianca Letti (middle) and the eFitFashion team won the World Champion title in the 2015 Imagine Cup.