The Harvard College Innovation (i3) Challenge is funding the next generation of undergraduate entrepreneurs, and the competition is steep.

On March 27, Harvard’s Cabot Library hosted the i3 Challenge’s capstone Pitch Night semi-finals, where 17 student startup teams sold their ideas to a panel of five company founders. The judges included Sam Vaghar, executive director of Millennium Campus Network, Zachary Quinn, president and co-founder of Love Your Melon apparel brand, Stephanie Kaplan, CEO and co-founder of Her Campus Media, Rob May, CEO and co-founder of Talla, and Paul Holliman, vice president of sales at Walt Disney Motion Pictures.

The annual event, now in its 11th year, is organized by the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center (TECH) at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engienering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Since 2007, the i3 Challenge has awarded $650,000 in grants to student entrepreneurs.

Two representatives from each team made five-minute presentations, sharing a few power point slides and demos, followed by five minutes to respond to the judges’ questions.

A judging panel of five company founders listens in as students pitch their startups. (Photo by Craig Jackson)

Computer science concentrators Menaka Narayanan, A.B. ’19, and Ivraj Seerha, A.B. ’19, presented HomeBase, a beneficiary-centered data collection platform for non-governmental organizations inspired by Narayanan’s work with a poverty relief group in Rwanda.

“The i3 event was a great way to see all the creative projects my peers are working on,” Narayanan said. “I was a bit nervous presenting, but I felt like it was, overall, a really warm and positive environment.”

The pitches fell into two main categories: commercial and social impact, each competing for a $10,000 final prize to support their venture. All pitches, however, had to cover the essentials: the idea and its importance, the problem solved, potential competitors, and plans for using the prize money. Winners will be announced during a finalist showcase on April 18.

The questions from the judges delved deeper into the details. Still, each team spoke confidently and had answers for every query that came their way.

Nestor Tkachenko, a freshman and member of the project team Flow Suit, said,  “Participating in the i3 Innovation Challenge gave us a great opportunity to develop a pitch for the public, as most of our pitches have been to industry and business professionals. I think this event helped us prepare for future discussions about our venture with the public as well as investors by encouraging us to focus less on the technical aspects of the project and more on the real-world implications and a coherent business plan.”

Flow Suit, a current venture team in the Harvard Innovation Labs, is developing clothing infused with electrodes that can stimulate muscles. This technology could allow paraplegics to have manual control of their legs, giving them the ability to stand upright and walk.

Pitched projects ranged from the electrical engineering and robotics of Flow Suit, to the web/app-based data collection platform of HomeBase, to the highly technical code-based pitch by Encrypt—a decentralized nodal network infrastructure to allow journalists to publish content freely in countries with strict censorship like Syria and Pakistan.

It was easy to see how any of these startups could soon follow in the successful footsteps of other i3 Innovation Challenge winners like DoorBell, Reverie Labs, and Quorum.

Andreas Vandris, A.B. ’18, a statistics concentrator, and Ben Molin, A.B. ’18, an economics concentrator, make their pitch for Jump Credit, a platform that helps non-profits and city governments provide high-quality, scalable credit advice to their clients and residents. (Photo by Craig Jackson.)

Olenka Polak, A.B. ’18, an economics concentrator, served as master of ceremonies at the event and first-time director of the i3 Challenge. She chose to make this year’s pitch rounds open to the public, and the entire evening was standing room only. Cabot Library was filled with friends of the presenters, and countless other interested students and members of the Harvard community.

“The success of this experiment goes to show how compelling each of the 17 pitches were and how engrossed the audience was in learning about the extraordinary solutions these innovators are finding to the world's greatest problems,” Polak said. “It would be a shame to keep this passionate energy and crucial storytelling tucked away somewhere private on campus. I hope the event continues to be public for years to come.”