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Discover: How innovative thinking kept Cambrian’s Innovation Challenge alive during COVID-19

And learn how the college’s students, many of them international students, are thinking outside the box to solve real-world problems 

A school year of work. Regular classes of course, but in addition to that: mentorship meetings, sessions with the Regional Business Centre, meetings with industry experts and guiding professors; research and development: start, restart, face obstacles, overcome them and in the end win out over adversity; using your work ethic, imagination, and vision for a better future to create, to build and to progress until you arrive at one big event, the chance to stand in the spotlight with your vision now realised. 

And then a pandemic happens. 

Though the world seems to be in the same storm, not all are in the same boat. Everyone has had to grasp and struggle to make sense of these, to use the now ubiquitous term, “unprecedented times”; some more than others, of course, but no one has faced an easy adjustment. 

Luckily, entrepreneurs have always needed to work fast, to be flexible, to adapt and change at a moment — or market’s — notice. That’s why the very first Cambrian College Research and Development (R&D) Student Innovation Challenge was able to not only bounce back from postponement, but showcase high-concept, real-world applications created by Cambrian students. 

With the help of very understanding and supportive sponsors like Ethier Sand and Gravel, XPS-A Glencore Company, HLS Hard-Line, Agilis Networks, Sofvie Inc., Netspectrum, and The Workshop (A GSU Project), the event was able to succeed despite the challenges.   

So it was that during a very strange time, a group of 70 or more met remotely on Zoom — rather than in the eDome at the college — and began an event that looked similar to Dragon’s Den, if the show were only filmed from the shoulders up.

But the thing about great ideas is that no matter how you hear them or see them presented, the best will always shine through. So much so that of the five teams that completed all the requirements for entry into the Cambrian Innovation Challenge, no one was awarded third place – there was a tie for second. 

One of the second place winners is a team made up of international students Harish Ramakrishnan, Vineeth Harikumar and Bharath Dayalan. Harish Ramakrishnan had the idea behind the team’s presentation from a very personal and common problem: there is never enough time, or money, to eat properly.

 “Being an International student I faced difficulty in maintaining food habits, I started skipping meals, due to financial problems and time management,” says Ramakrishnan, “As an international student earning minimum wage, I couldn’t afford to buy food daily, which led me to cook my own food to save some money. However, with increased work in college and part-time work, often I find it difficult to find time to cook.” 

He also notes that even if students can find time to cook, not all of them know how. 

He came up with an idea, presented it to his roommates — who became his teammates — and after attending all the required sessions and meetings to be able to enter the contest, together they presented Hunger Connect. 

It’s an idea that is built around bulk buying. Offering several different price levels, the idea is that restaurants set a menu and choose the price, and those ordering could band together to help the restaurant sell meals, and then get better prices. 

“For example, Cambrian College has more than 4,000 international students,” says Ramakrishnan. “Assume that we have 500 students using the app and five restaurants selling economy meals for $10, so this app will compile those students who selected the same meal and place the order in bulk. Probability of students selecting the same meal is 50 to 100. Minimum of 50 orders per day is a huge order for a restaurant, so they reduce the base price to $6 or $7 thus helping students to save at least $2 for each meal.”

There would also be open bid orders, a 24-hour time frame in which students can ‘bid’ on an item and the price would be reduced based on the number of students ordering. 

“For instance, a medium pizza will be shown under ‘open bid’ orders with the base price of $10; the base will reduce based on the number of orders. If 100 students choose the same, the price reduces to $5 to $6.”

The team tied for second and won $750 to continue Hunger Connect’s development, sponsored by The Workshop (a GSU project) and XPS – A Glencore Company. If this sounds interesting to you, the team is currently looking for investors. 

The other half of second place belongs to Shreya Pandya, who entered the competition as a single member. Pandya is pursuing her post-graduate diploma in Mobile Development, and though she began working on another idea before arriving at the one that earned her the prize, she persevered and ended up with a mobile app designed to help us all find our way – literally. 

Remembering a time she visited Laurentian University and struggled to find her way around, she created an app that offers the user ‘augmented reality indoor navigation’, and unlike what she found through her research, she created one that can work for most phones, and will include other features for improved user experience. 

Not only can the app help you find your way around the inside of a building, but also “specific details can be added within,” Pandya said, “like if the app is used for a shopping mall, the user can scan the barcode or the shop and the app will identify the shop and show the details, and deals going on in the shop, which will save a lot of time. It can be used in universities, colleges, museums and many places where indoor navigation is required.”

Pandya won $750 from XPS – A Glencore Company for her second place finish, and she is happily continuing to develop the product, should you want to get in on the ground floor. 

The Grand Prize of $2,500 was sponsored by Agilis Networks, and it was won by a team that not only took that prize, but an additional award of $250 for best use of technology. The team, made up of Sarath Sontam, Gowtham Ravindran, and Roshan Sivasankar – though Sontam credits the idea to Ravindran – created the app known as Smart Vision.

“Our basic idea is to assist visually impaired people using technology, which will mitigate the various challenges that they face in real life,” Sontam said. “Through secondary research, we identified major problems facing visually impaired people in real-time, such as: identifying tactical ground indicators, sensing obstacles from sidewalks, difficulty in reading signs, street names and bus numbers and most importantly, recognizing people. Our solution uses a machine vision camera — a dedicated device which is the size of a small box — capable of reading text, road signs, (and) recognizing people. So basically whatever the camera sees, that will be relayed to the mobile app installed in their mobile phones and connected to Bluetooth or headset through mobile phone, which informs the person in real time.”

It’s an idea that could change the world entirely for someone with a visual impairment. You know, more than the pandemic has already changed everything. 

And yes, they are also continuing development, should this idea intrigue you. 

The team that created Smart Vision credits the support that the Cambrian College’s Applied Research department has given them: everything from the opportunity to participate in the Hard-Line Machine Learning Hackathon, to the learning opportunities offered. 

“The R&D team had scheduled various meetings to help us understand what exactly we should do for the event, and how to prepare a business pitch. They invited guests from outside to give a clear idea how to research, how to analyze the market needs, how to select the target market, how to prepare a business pitch, they were very helpful in every step.”

And though it didn’t go exactly as planned, Director of Applied Research Mike Commito says that the event is sure to continue. “Ultimately the actual challenge wasn’t the way we would have loved to have done it in person, but I think the students doing it virtually and everyone coming out to support it virtually kind of speaks to the supportive nature of the Sudbury and Cambrian community,” says Commito. “We’re definitely already working on plans for the second Student Innovation Challenge, so it will be an annual thing at Cambrian; Next year we’re hopefully not in the middle of a pandemic and we can do it in person and really give the students a chance to shine under the spotlight.”  

But with ideas like these, Cambrian Students will shine regardless of what comes at them in the future. Let’s hope 2021 looks much different than 2020. 

Jenny Lamothe is a freelance writer, proof-reader and editor in Greater Sudbury. Contact her through her website,