April 29, 2016

Affordable and clean energy access—opportunities for refugees to provide language services—reliable access to the Internet—these are the goals of the winners of this year’s Dean’s Public Policy Challenge Grant competition, announced by SIPA at the 2016 #StartupColumbia Festival on April 29.

The annual competition invites students to propose innovative projects and prototypes that use technology and/or data to solve important urban problems. The winning teams were allocated a total of $65,000 in prize money to support the implementation of their projects.

The first-place team, Azimuth Solar, aims to make clean energy affordable for low income off-grid consumers in West Africa. Its members are Nthabiseng Mosia MIA ’16, Eric Silverman MIA ’16, and Alexandre Tourre MPA ’16.

The second-place team, NaTakallam, is developing an online platform that pairs students learning Arabic with displaced Syrians who provide Arabic practice opportunities. Members are Aline Sara MIA ’14, Reza Rahnema MIA ’14, Niko Efstathiou MIA ’17, Aimee Wenyue Chen MIA ’16, and Sherif Kamal MPA ’15.

The third-place team, CIGONN, aims to develop an Internet device sharing system for students in developing countries. Members are Olivier Bennaim MPA ’16 and Columbia Engineering student Alexandre Zeitoun.

The current sequence—the third since the program was inaugurated in Spring 2014—began in September 2015, when 10 student teams were chosen as semifinalists from more than 30 applications. While participating groups must include at least one SIPA student, they are encouraged to blend students from different disciplines and schools at Columbia University.

Each semi-finalist team received seed funding and a wealth of programmatic support to aid in the development of their ideas. They met with a panel of industry advisors, participated in a series of boot camp-style seminars on topics such as financial planning, legal issues, and design thinking.

After three months of refining their project models and working with potential partners, funders, and users, semifinalist teams presented to competition judges in February 2016. Five finalist teams, selected by a committee of Columbia University faculty and technology entrepreneurs chaired by Dean Merit E. Janow, then received additional support funding and two more months to continue to develop their project or prototype.

The five finalists—which included Concourse Markets and Nansen in addition to the three winners—presented the final version of their ideas on April 28.

— Lindsay Fuller MPA ’16

Photos, clockwise from left: Azimuth Solar (from left, Tourre, Mosia, Silverman); NaTakallam (from left, Efstathiou, Sara, Kamal, Chen); Bennaim and Zeitoun of CIGONN flank Dean Janow. 

Read more about the SIPA Dean’s Public Policy Challenge Grant and the 2015-16 competition.