April 28, 2015 – Union Tribune

College students with ideas that ranged from providing portable potties for land mine victims to bringing a soccer team to Yuma pitched their proposal in an annual competition at the University of San Diego on Tuesday.

The entrepreneurs were vying for a share of $75,000 that could be used for seed money in the fifth annual Social Innovation Challenge at USD.

Stephen Conroy, economics professor and faculty director of the Center for Peace and Commerce at USD, said the challenge began five years ago at the suggestion of a student.

The once-exclusive competition was opened to San Diego State University, Point Loma Nazarene, San Diego City College and UC San Diego students as a pilot last year. This year’s competition was open to all college students in the county.

USD students still compete in a separate track and for a separate pool of money. This year, USD students vied for a share of about $40,000 and other students competed for a piece of $35,000.

“It’s not a traditional blue ribbon model,” Conroy said about the rewards. “Even the top project may be awarded just $2,000, depending on what they need to get to the next stage.”

One hundred students pitched ideas in the first round of the competition, which was judged online and attracted submissions from Cal State San Marcos University, National University and Point Loma Nazarene this year.

After being narrowed to 60 submissions in the second round, the third and final round Tuesday saw eight teams from USD and seven teams from SDSU and UCSD, who made pitches before a panel of judges that included local and national companies and nonprofit institutions such as Qualcomm Ventures, Project Concern International and Moxie Foundation.

Judges included Keith Muhart of Qualcomm Ventures, Steve Paljieg of the Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Peter Zahn, president of the Moxie Foundation, which contributed $50,000 each year for the past two years of the challenge.

The morning session included several USD student proposals to help needy people overseas.

“Everybody poops,” student Harrison Schmachtenberger said in an introduction that immediately got attention. “But what if that was the hardest part of your day?”

Schmachtenberger then explained his team’s concept for a low-cost portable toilet seat that would replace the pit latrines in Uganda that victims of land mines who have lost limbs find very difficult to use.

The team would need $20,000 in seed money to take the project to the next level, which ultimately will involve building the toilets in Uganda with local material.

Coincidentally, another UCSD team pitched “The People’s Potty Project,” which would create a low-cost toilet for people in India to use.

USD students Jeff Heath and Parker Cohn proposed H2GO, a device that would desalinate and remove bacteria from brackish water.

“All we need is $30,000 to get from point A to B,” Cohn said.

A nongovernmental organization already has signed a letter of intent to distribute the product, which is operated with solar power or a manual treadle pump, they said.

Another team of USD students led by Khoa Vu have created Foxbat Dynamics, a company that plans to create the first drone that will use both wings and helicopter blades, allowing it to take off vertically and travel up to 120 miles an hour.

Vu said the drone would be used to help firefighters know where flames are spreading during a brush wire, potentially keeping them from being trapped.

USD student John Godfrey is working to bring professional soccer to Yuma, Arizona, where he already has converted the field the Padres used to use for spring training. Godfrey was seeking $25,000 to fund half the franchise fee to make his team part of the Premier Development League.

Judges included Teresa Smith, who won two challenges as a USD student. Her projects helped her pay for a food truck that accepts food stamps and provides fresh meals to homeless people downtown. Her other project created safe parking lots for homeless people with vehicles to use at night.

A complete list of the finalists’ projects can be found at


Winning proposals will be announced in a ceremony Friday afternoon.

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