College Students Mix Business Ideas, Sustainability – San Diego Business Journal


SAN DIEGO – The future of business not only looks bright – it also appears to be headed toward greater sustainability; better industry, innovation and infrastructure; and wellness for all.

The University of San Diego earlier this month hosted hundreds of students looking to make a dent in social problems and societal needs earlier this month as part of the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge.

Launched in 2011-12, the Fowler GSIC invites student teams to imagine business ideas that generate profits while solving pressing social challenges – from reducing inequalities to bettering infrastructures to fighting hunger to responsible consumption and production.

Over multiple rounds May 3-4, students presented their ideas to business leaders, including the competition’s namesake, philanthropist Ron Fowler in the (Joan B.) Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice Theatre.

Eight collegiate teams steeped in purpose-driven economy pitched their business ideas to regional innovation leaders acting as judges, with Paradigm Robotics from the University of Texas at Austin earning first-place honors.

The Texas team wowed judges with their plan to develop next-generation robotic solutions, earning the students $25,000 in seed venture funding.

The team’s flagship product, FireBot, is designed to search burning buildings for human life, safely providing firefighters with mission critical information; its technology aims to reduce annual injuries, fatalities and expenses.

James T. Harris
University of San Diego

“At the University of San Diego, we do a lot to nurture innovation and to honor the entrepreneurial spirit, and we’re committed to doing it differently,” said USD President James T. Harris III. “We are committed to not just innovation but to social innovation and what it means… that we challenge ourselves not to just create something new or different or unique but to create something that will address and perhaps even solve some of humanity’s most urgent challenges. The world needs social innovation more than ever.”

CreditCliq, a platform that helps newcomers share credit history and financial profiles with businesses in the U.S. and Canada, launched by San Jose State University students, took second place and $15,000 in seed funding.

Banaweave, from Soka University of America (based in Aliso Viejo) took third place and $10,000 in seed funding. Banaweave transforms banana farm waste into pulp and fiber for paper, textile and sanitary products.

The fourth- through eighth-place finishers each won $2,500 in seed funding, and another 10 teams were chosen as “Ideas Award” winners, each receiving $1,000 in seed funding from Wendy Gillespie and the Capdevilla Gillespie Foundation, a private foundation that funds educational programs and has granted USD funding previously.

The winning teams were winnowed down from nearly 50 student teams representing 12 countries and 40 universities. Teams pitched regional innovation leaders, serving as judges, on their innovative business ventures, with the chance to win part of $100,000 in funding and in-kind services.

Bigger Ideas, Better Presentations Every Year

Fowler, who is currently chairman and CEO at Liquid Investments, Inc., and a judge at the event, called hearing the pitches “fun and entertaining.”

“It was also tough,” Fowler admitted. “Some of them were really, really good; some of them were a lot further along than others. But all the ideas are big ideas that are going to make this world a better place… I’m just privileged to be a part of it.”

Ron Fowler
Chairman & CEO
Liquid Investments, Inc.

Fowler, a member of USD’s Board of Trustees from 1996-2016, and his wife, Alexis Fowler, have donated a series of gifts that total more than $6.5 million to USD for it to become an epicenter for social innovation and entrepreneurship, said Andrew Biros, associate director of Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at USD.

Fowler told the audience at the finals that when USD started the program 13 years ago with the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, “we wondered how big it could get.”

“Every year the presentations are better the ideas are bigger and I don’t know where it stops but keep on coming back.”

Biros said also important to the event are the collaborations at USD that promote social innovation and entrepreneurship campuswide.

He said there is a “cross-campus ethos of innovation and entrepreneurship where ideas and challenges are explored and discussed openly among a vibrant intellectual community.”

Inspiration for Connection, Solutions

The Fowler GSIC inspires student social entrepreneurs around the world to connect and create business solutions that address social and environmental challenges – real businesses vying for real funding, Biros said.

Biros said the student-powered businesses’ mission goes beyond profit.

Andrew Biros, Ed.D.
Associate Director
University of San Diego

Each team is tasked with coming up with ideas that address social and environmental challenges, and they’re guided by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN goals are 17 calls for worldwide action, in recognition that ending poverty and other deprivations need to align with strategies that improve health and education, and reduce inequality and spur economic growth, while tackling climate change and working to preserve the globe’s oceans and forests.

Through more than a decade, the FGSIC has connected more than 3,000 students from more than 25 countries, recognizing their outstanding social ventures based on positive impact and financial sustainability, Biros said. To date, the program has distributed more than $700,000 in funding and in kind-services, to seed the most innovative and promising global ventures.

Biros said the FGSIC champions investments in student social innovators so they can achieve their goals – and that those goals will lead to answers to worldwide challenges.

“We will not have the social and environmental innovations our society desperately needs, unless we invest in social innovators,” Biros said.

The FGSIC is an international competition, and this year was designated a World Design Capital 2024 Legacy Program. (WDC 2024 is a binational program showcasing the San Diego-Tijuana region as a global hub for design, innovation, arts and culture.)

USD’s two student teams that competed in the event but did not crack the top 8 were Buni.Ai, a business using the power of artificial intelligence to connect tech companies with skilled workers in Africa; and JuniorJobHunt, a venture aimed at providing more flexible work options for people looking to balance academics and extracurricular activities with a desire to enter the workforce, and provides young workers with a streamlined platform connecting them to gig-economy jobs.

University of San Diego
PRESIDENT: James T. Harris III
BUSINESS: University
OPERATING BUDGET: $450 million
EMPLOYEES: About 2,400
CONTACT: 619-260-4600
SOCIAL IMPACT: USD’s Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge invites student teams to imagine business ideas that generate profits while solving social problems.
NOTABLE: USD has a strong supporter in Ron Fowler, philanthropist and former owner of the San Diego Sockers and minority owner of the Padres. Fowler and his wife have donated more than $6.5 million to USD and funded USD’s state-of-the-art baseball stadium, Fowler Park.


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