Heller teams take top spots at Brandeis Innovation’s SPARKTank

February 12, 2020

Four students from SPARKtank winning team Nourchemie
Grand Prize Winner NourChemie team members, clockwise from top left: Kumba Gaye, MA SID '21, Alexander Berlin, MA SID/MBA '21, Isabelle Kaplan, MA SID/MBA '21, and Sokunpharady Kao, MA SID '20.

By Karen Shih 

In early February, Heller teams took four of the top spots and won $16,000 in prize money at Brandeis Innovation’s 6th Annual SPARKTank startup pitch competition. From creating clean energy to demystifying health care to expanding opportunities to learn English in developing countries, students pitched a variety of innovative solutions to social problems. Though the competition is open to students across campus, students from Heller’s MA in Sustainable International Development (SID) program had a particularly strong showing.

 “We're so proud of the SID students whose winning teams dominated this year's SPARKTank Pitch,” says SID Program Director Joan Dassin. “Their success shows the power of creative approaches to development challenges in renewable energy, education, environmental sustainability and improving livelihoods for vulnerable communities. It also reflects the values of teamwork, determination and social entrepreneurship that marks their education at Heller.”

In addition, a team of dual degree students from the Tufts MD/Heller MBA in Health Management program also won prize money for their project, Polify.

“I love seeing our MD/MBA students connecting with Brandeis students and events like SPARKTank,” says Jon Chilingerian, director of the MD-MBA program with Tufts Medical School and the Executive MBA for Physicians program. “Polify is a breakthrough innovative student portal that connects students with caregivers in ways that can reduce uncertainty and volatility and consequently improves university students’ experience during an illness or medical episode.”

The winning Heller teams were:

  • Grand Prize Winner NourChemie, $5,000: This holistic waste management solution converts organic waste into clean energy and soil supplements. “We assemble a management plant incorporating extant biogas generation technology, biogas cleaning technology, and a public-private partnership with the government of Sfax, Tunisia, to collect organic waste from the local fishing and olive oil industries. We convert this waste into renewable natural gas which we will sell directly to a local natural gas plant, and Biochar fertilizer which we will sell back to the olive oil plantations where we collect waste.” The team consists of Alexander Berlin, MA SID/MBA '21; Isabelle Kaplan, MA SID/MBA '21; Sokunpharady Kao, MA SID '20; Kumba Gaye, MA SID '21; and Amir Ben Ameur, MA COEX '20.
  • StudyEng, $5,000: StudyEng is a for-profit social enterprise dedicated to providing affordable and quality English test preparation materials for TOEFL and IELTS, an English test required for anyone wanting to study abroad in Western universities, and is focused on undergraduate university students who come from a lower socioeconomic background. Because it is expensive to get private tutoring and join an English course in Indonesia, StudyEng is mainly online-based, allowing it to reach many different students from all over Indonesia. It will also offer tutoring services for a slightly higher price — but still affordable — to provide a range of services for students depending on their budget and needs. The team consists of Eddy Vien, MA SID '20; Dinar Kharisma, a postdoctoral researcher; and Brontte Hwang, MA SID/MBA '21.
  • Alga Viva, $3,000: AlgaViva is a for-profit social enterprise whose mission is to mitigate climate change while advancing the livelihoods of small scale farmers in coastal Latin American and Caribbean communities. AlgaViva partners with struggling fishing cooperatives in order to facilitate a transition to sustainable seaweed farming. The product — red seaweed — will then be sold to animal feed manufacturers in the United States because adding just a sprinkle of seaweed to a cow's diet reduces methane gas production by over 50%! The team, which won Hult Prize at Brandeis and the Heller Startup Challenge in the fall, consists of Kathryn Dix, MA SID '21; Ilter Çakmak, MA SID '21, and Becky Hayes, MA SID/MBA '21.  
  • Polify, $3,000: Polify is an application that helps university students understand their health benefits and connect with local providers. The application will inform students of their copay, coinsurance, and contribution towards deductibles in a friendly, digestible format. Polify will be a tool for students to identify local providers, learn about covered services, and read reviews about providers from other students on campus. Polify can also be a tool for university health centers to send out notifications about flu-shots, blood drives, and campus wellness events. Polify has the potential to become a student's all-encompassing portal for managing their health. The team consists of Tufts MD/Heller MBA students Jacob Radparvar and Benjamin Pockros.