San Diego Business Journal

Two local finalists competed at the University of San Diego’s Fowler Global Innovation Challenge recently. The program started at USD in 2011 to highlight entrepreneurs looking to make a difference with their work, and has since expanded to other universities — and other countries. A total prize of $50,000 is distributed among the winners.

This year, the Fowler Global Innovation Challenge had a total of 42 finalists worldwide. The local finalists included One Digital World and Re:Fresh Smoothies. Casey Myers and Momo Bertrand, two master’s students graduating from USD’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, founded One Digital World. Their goal is to build a digital literacy programs for female refugees, with an initial goal of training 400 refugees per year in Greece. Last month, when the team was selected as finalists, they received $3,000 in seed funding and an additional $1,000 from an audience choice award.

Re:Fresh Smoothies was founded by Austin Hirsh, a mechanical engineering student graduating from the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering. The concept is to make smoothie packs that can be mixed with ice and water, using “imperfect” fruits and vegetables.

Hirsh said he got the idea from his habit of making a smoothie every morning, and wondered if there was a way to make it more convenient, while reducing food waste. He plans to source the fruits and veggies for his smoothies from picked-over produce at farms, that would then be freeze-dried and ground into a powder. With the $3,500 prize from being picked as a semifinalist, Hirsh bought a small freeze dryer to give it a shot.

Amit Kakkad, Director of USD’s Center for Peace and Commerce, helped grow the program from its inception. The goal was to teach students to do business in an ethical and sustainable way, and to give them a taste of entrepreneurship.

“While students are still young, let’s try to reduce any ignorance or indifference that we sometimes see in the business world,” he said. “We want students to take a stab at entrepreneurship while the stakes are low. For some reason, if it doesn’t work out, you’ve gotten so many valuable lessons, that you’re already a much more valuable employee for any career that you go into.”

Students are asked to find a challenge that is not currently being addressed in the marketplace and propose a solution. They also have to provide some structure around how it would work, while exploring the risks of the business and how it would be scaled.

In turn, finalists get seed funding, and the opportunity to access experts and other teams from all over the world. The amount of seed funding awarded increases progressively, depending on whether the company makes it as a semifinalist, finalist, or is one of the selected winners.

After two years of running the program internally at USD, Kakkad opened it to other universities. It grew to a binational initiative in 2017, when five universities from the U.S. and five from Mexico got on board.

“We are so close to the border, why not expand and engage with our partners on the other side of the border?” he said.

Recently, Kakkad has been developing a framework to more universities to adapt the program for themselves.

“Our goal is to not count how many companies participants launch, but what those participants gain — skills in entrepreneurship. We want them to be prepared to be a positive force for society in any business they join,” he said. “We don’t want our students to look at social impact as something that only charities or the government should do. Businesses can look at ways in which they can do business in an ethical, responsible and sustainable way.”