Student group named among best innovators
By Katie Tai
Published on Thursday, March 29, 2012
Over the last few weeks, Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering’s hydropower project — which currently operates two sites in Rwanda — was recognized as a semifinalist in both the University of Washingon Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition and the Deel Social Innovation Challenge, according to DHE president Ted Sumers ’12.
During the final week of Winter term classes, Sumers and DHE vice president of marketing Alison Polton-Simon ’14 presented the hydropower business plan at the Seattle rotary of the competition. DHE placed as one of 18 semifinalists out of over 200 participants, according to Polton-Simon.
“GSEC was the first business plan competition DHE had ever entered,” Polton-Simon said. “We were looking for a way to get funding, and it was supposed to be our first trial run.”
Despite DHE’s relative inexperience with this type of competition, the organization won the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovations Alliance’s Design to Venture scholarship and was awarded a $1,500 travel grant to attend a NCIIA workshop on developing business plans. The NCIIA prize was one of several awards for which teams competed at the Global Social Entrepreneurship, attended largely by students from business, medical and graduate schools, according to hydropower projet leader Joey Anthony ’12.
“Ted and Alison were by far the youngest people there,” Anthony said. “But the first round gave DHE a lot of feedback and helped teach Ted and Alison about how to better sell DHE in business plan competitions. It was a good learning experience for the group as far as marketing and development.”
Sumers said that while the judges supported DHE’s ideas and objectives, they encouraged the group to improve its business plan. Because the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition is a “launching point for socially-conscious start-ups,” many participants include non-governmental organizations and venture capitalists from whom DHE leaders could learn, according to Sumers.
“In the past we didn’t really have a concrete business plan — we hired people to run the sites,” Sumers said. “We didn’t really take careful control over funding. Now we work closely with Tuck students, among other students and faculty, to implement a stronger plan.”
Following the competition, DHE members were notified that the organization was selected as a semifinalist for Dell’s Social Innovation Challenge, which includes both a judged portion and “people’s choice” vote, Anthony said.
In the past, the hydropower project has been mainly funded by the Thayer School of Engineering and NCIIA, according to Sumers. The project began after the Wildlife Conservation Society, an international group dedicated to preserving biodiversity, recognized a need for electricity in remote villages in Rwanda contacted DHE, which was then known as Humanitarian Engineering Leadership Projects, to address this issue. Members of the organization subsequently designed a suitable system and sent a team to Banda, Rwanda in 2008 to implement the project at two different sites, according to Sumers.
Hydropower entails using the potential energy of water to generate electricity. While hydroelectric dams are typically built on sources of running water like rivers, DHE focuses on pico dams, smaller-scale hydropower projects that operate as energy kiosks, Polton-Simon said.
These dams utilize water on a smaller scale by diverting flow from a source like a waterfall, according to Anthony. The water then enters a pipe and powers a turbine to generate electricity, which can be used by locals to charge batteries and cellular phones.
“The turbines we implemented from before generate under a kilowatt of energy, and the new one we’ll put in has a maximum of two kilowatts,” he said. “By the standards of energy these villages need, it’s more than enough.”
After building and taking apart a practice site in Norwich in 2010, a team that included Anthony and Sumers traveled to Rwanda in summer 2011 for the first time since 2008 in order to repair a broken turbine, establish new contacts and scout potential hydropower sites. The project now operates in conjunction with CARE International — a nongovernmental organization that aims to fight global poverty — as well as Rwanda’s ministry of infrastructure and the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology.
Even a small project can make a dramatic difference in the daily lives of Rwandans, according to Sumers.
“It’s insane what a big impact the hydropower makes,” Sumers said. “It provides cheap clean lighting. It allows people to charge their cell phones, and lots of people in Rwanda have cell phones and will pay people a ton of money to charge their cell phones. In addition, it enables economic developments, businesses and wealth retention.”
Hydropower also offers environmental benefits, providing a viable alternative to burning wood and kerosene for light, according to Polton-Simon.
The trips to Rwanda have been planned and executed entirely by students, enabling DHE members to become heavily involved in the organization’s workings.
“DHE is great — really cool to work on,” Sumers said. “It’s probably the most meaningful thing I’ve done in my life.”
A group of seven students including both undergraduates and Thayer students will travel to Rugote, Rwanda this summer to build a new site, according to Sumers.
Polton-Simon is a former member of The Dartmouth Staff.