The inaugural SIPA Dean’s Public Policy Challenge reached a milestone today with the announcement that two winning teams will each receive $25,000 to support the development and launch of technology-based solutions to urban problems. One student team, PaisaBack, will use mobile technology to encourage women in India to get preventive health care, while the other, Terranga, is developing a mobile app to connect travelers worldwide with local residents of the places they visit.
The competition began a year ago, when Dean Merit E. Janow announced the competition to design cutting-edge projects that use information and communications technology and/or data analytics. After an open call for proposals, submissions were winnowed to a group of ten semifinalists in April, then five finalists in October.
Semi-finalists and finalists received funding for specialized training and market research, as well as mentorship and guidance from faculty, alumni, and other experts in numerous areas—from building a business model to testing user response and pitching a concept to potential investors.
“The competition guided us through the dynamics of business development, product development, partnerships, and the process of scripting an operational and financial plan,” said Swami Ganesan MPA-DP ’14, a member of the PaisaBack team that also includes Greg Levin MPA-DP ’14 and Ritu Rajan, who will graduate from Columbia Business School this year.
Ganesan said his experience at SIPA had connected him with diverse students and faculty, whom he was able to call upon as the challenge continued. “I was able to not only recruit public health, business, and operational advisers, but also build the core team for PaisaBack from friends and classmates who shared a common interest in the intersection of businesses and their social impact.”
“Our students and alumni have incredible creativity and drive, and the results of this competition are as impressive as we expected,” said Dean Merit E. Janow. “I hope the process has been as instructive for the participants as it has been for me and our faculty and alumni who have served as advisers along the way.”
For the winners, the $25,000 awards will help them take the next steps toward launching their new enterprises.
The PaisaBack team envisions a mobile phone-based system that rewards women with redeemable digital points when they participate in health programs and seek preventive healthcare screenings. Noting that a recent pilot program in India demonstrated a strong demand for the product, Ganesan said the team would strive to develop PaisaBack on a larger scale; he hopes the PaisaBack brand will be “synonymous with a healthy lifestyle” in three to five years.
Terranga’s Lindsay Litowitz MIA ’14 and Tammy Lewin MPA-DP ’15 are also developing a mobile-phone app. They see opportunity in a convergence of travel trends that includes rapidly growing tourism in developing countries, increased activity by young travelers (who take 200 million trips annually), and a preference for mobile applications.
Terranga will appeal to travelers who want to go off the beaten path, Litowitz said.
“It harnesses the power of travel for social good by connecting locals who share insights into their lives with travelers looking for authentic local experiences,” she added. “In gratitude, travelers help locals’ dreams come true” by making voluntary contributions.
Litowitz and Lewin traveled to Costa Rica and Colombia to do market research as part of the competition. In the next six months, the pair will build the app and return to Colombia to launch it.
“We could not be where we are now without the support of this Challenge Grant and our advisors at SIPA,” said Lewin. “By testing our model in the field, we deeply learned about the desire of locals to meet with travelers and share their cities, on the ground and in real time.”
“We envision a world made better by travel and travel made more impactful by contributing to the lives of thousands of locals,” said Litowitz.
“I wish PaisaBack and Terranga success in developing their ideas into ongoing concerns and look forward to following them in the months and years ahead,” Janow said. “I also congratulate the other finalists and encourage them and other students to continue with their excellent work that applies new technologies to problems around the world.”
A second round of the Dean’s Challenge Grant, which began in September 2014, is at the finalist phase; winners of this competition will be announced in the University-wide entrepreneurship festival in April.
The announcement came at a discussion of “Technology and the City: Democracy, Equity, and Engagement” featuring Minerva Tantoco, New York City’s first chief technology officer, and entrepreneurs Nick Beim of Venrock and Ted Bailey of Dataminr.
Janow thanked program sponsors and said SIPA will continue to expand programming at the intersection between tech and policy.
pictured (L-R): Rajan, Ganesan, Levin, Litowitz, Lewin