Diamond Challenge Brings Student Entrepreneurs from Around the Globe to UD

The loud energy driven by a crowd of young people in the University of Delaware’s Clayton Hall on April 27 represented the built-up enthusiasm of a three-day summit — and also the culmination of months of hard work.

“I want it to sink in for all of you how incredibly important this accomplishment is … if you don’t walk away with a big check or a small check, you still made it,” emcee Maggie Nelson told the crowd.

That might sound like a typical remark to make people feel good for participating and doing their best, but Nelson, the program coordinator for youth programs at UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, was referring to Horn’s Diamond Challenge. Getting to Newark represented much more than a participation badge.

To earn the right to attend the Diamond Challenge, the final stage of a global innovation and entrepreneurship contest for high school students, participants on 940 teams had to make it through months of preliminary competition that narrowed the field to a mere 68.

The Diamond Challenge started in 2012 with 100 participants from Delaware and Kenya. This year, more than 2,600 students participated. They came from the U.S., Canada, China, the United Arab Emirates, and more — 30 states and 56 countries altogether. In its history, the Diamond Challenge has reached more than 18,000 students from more than 120 countries.

The aim is to build a worldwide partnership that instills entrepreneurial values, according to Dan Freeman, Horn’s founding director and associate professor of marketing.

“I think there’s a misconception around entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship education, that it’s just about starting new small businesses,” he said. That’s a part, but “It’s really about the mindset, the skill set and the means to persistently challenge the status quo.”

Nobody is happy with everything in the world, Freeman said. Horn Entrepreneurship is working to promote a mindset that “you can only progress by thinking about, why are we doing things this way and how can we make it better?”

The Diamond Challenge gives students agency to take action on their ideas, he said.

It’s also a hub, Nelson said. Horn’s international partner organizations are reaching a growing number of young people themselves.

“We’re intentionally partnering with those that we know can amplify that message,” she said.

That kind of creative and change-making thinking was on display in April. One example: team Exotech, which would go on to win a top prize, wowed contestants and judges alike with their presentation of an artificial intelligence-enhanced artificial hand that could respond to brain signals, helping stroke patients in their rehabilitation. They explained that the technology could be adapted for use with other limbs as well. Their polished presentation included testimonials from health institutions and a doctor who had reviewed the product.

While not all ideas end up hitting the market, “These students are taking this very seriously,” said Felicia Harrington, Horn’s assistant director of youth programs. They generally don’t make it to the finals unless they are.

She pointed to a team from 2022, Clore, which is now marketing and selling a fire retardant spray to proactively protect homes in areas vulnerable to wildfires. The founders are now expanding and considering venture capital offers, she said.

That won’t be the case with everyone, but, “I think many of them will go on to do entrepreneurial things, whether or not it’s their exact Diamond Challenge idea,” she said.

Diamond Challenge competitors also get to meet like-minded, motivated people their age, from much more diverse backgrounds than is typical for high school students, Harrington said.

“It’s been a very pleasurable experience,” said Antonio Dominguez, a senior at the International School of Panama, of the 2024 event. Dominguez represented a team working on VOTA Panama, which aims to help inform voters in that country. (It later won a Horn prize for social innovation).

“I’ve managed to meet a lot of different talented individuals, a lot of passionate youth … we want to make a change in the world,” he said.

“I think it’s super important, especially for students from Delaware and the surrounding area, to have that global perspective,” Freeman said, “and really a unique opportunity to be in the same room with kids … from all different parts of the world. It’s pretty amazing.”

The Diamond Challenge also puts Delaware, and its flagship University, on the map. It’s “a great way for (contestants) to get connected and understand there’s great things happening here at UD,” Harrington said.

While privacy concerns keep them from tracking precise statistics on participants who end up at UD, Freeman said, they have seen former competitors enrolling in Lerner and UD’s other colleges. “Part of our goal is to try to bring creative, innovative and entrepreneurial students into every major at the University.”

The final summit event isn’t just about making pitches to judges. It also builds in chances to socialize and learn. Competitors were able to relax with cornhole and a giant Jenga set. At informational sessions, they could hear how to enhance their customer research with generative AI, or listen to a panel of investors who shared insights on what venture capital firms are looking for.

Team leaders benefit as well. Allwyn Bryner, an innovation teacher at the International School of Panama who led Dominguez’s team, said teachers promoting experiential learning can often feel isolated or discouraged.

“But when I come here and I see kids pitching the next-level ideas that can change lives, it just warms my heart,” he said.

He calls the Diamond Challenge a chance to reset and rebuild his passion, and he’s trying to spread the word about it in Latin America.

Bryner, who is originally from India and has worked all over the world, said the contest can also be life-changing for students, giving them opportunities and connections they otherwise wouldn’t have. The prize money alone, he said, can go a long way, especially in other economies. Top winners in the contest earn $12,000.

“The biggest reason why I love Diamond Challenge over any other high school challenge, hands down, is the feedback,” Bryner said. Teams get valuable input from the judges on what to work on from the early stages. “That’s the game changer.”

Freeman thanked the many judges who provided that input throughout the contest, along with the corporate sponsors.

“A program like this cannot happen without robust support from the broader community,” he said.

2024 Diamond Challenge winners

Business Innovation Track ($12,000):

Refil (Canada, USA). A low cost and sustainable technology to efficiently recycle waste 3D printing filaments. James Xiao, Bill Xu, Alexander Zhang, Wei Li (adult advisor) – A low-cost and sustainable technology to efficiently recycle waste 3D printing filaments.

Social Innovation Track ($12,000)

Exotech (Oregon). A brain-controlled exoskeleton that revolutionizes post-stroke hand rehabilitation. Arush Goswami, Jazveer Kaler, Akash Pai, Eleanor Song, Ashish Pai (adult advisor)

Topical prizes for finalists who show particular promise and excellence, $1,500

The Delaware Solid Waste Authority Waste and Recycling Innovation Prize:

Business Innovation:

FarmAble (India). Turning concrete walls into sustainable gardens. Ishaan Argawal, Vivaan Mathur, Yash Nath, Mahirr Sikka, Sylvester Wellington (adult advisor)

Social Innovation:

BioCopi (California). A chitin-based bioplastic solution to invasive copi fish and plastic pollution. Aadi Chauhan, Akilan Dorairaj, Aarnav Nagabhirava, Rohit Vakkalagadda, Anitha Vakkalagadda (adult advisor).

The Gore Innovation Excellence Prize:

Business Innovation:

KEEPsulin (China). A portable thermoregulated wrap for insulin preservation. Tiffany Lee, Y. Nhi Nguyen, Susie Cirone (adult advisor).

Social Innovation:

Dristhi (India). An assistive mobility device for the blind equipped with AI and machine learning. Aryan Agarwal, Sahya Lagisetty, Kavita Agarwal (adult advisor).

The Horn Entrepreneurship Equity Thru Entrepreneurship Prize:

Outside Connection (Pennsylvania, Texas). A job site for people returning from prison. Makenzie Griffith, Sebastian Tan, Donna Roop (adult advisor).

The Horn Entrepreneurship Global Prize:

Business Innovation:

NurtureGlow (Philippines, Singapore). Helping new mothers relieve the struggles of postnatal depression through convenient and accessible devices. Nicole Estacio, Lucas Lee, Chloe Loe, Aniqa Nor, Ee Ling Lim (adult advisor).

Social Innovation:

VOTA Panama (Panama). A mobile phone application that continuously updates Panamanians about Panamanian elections and politics. Daniela Balbin, Antonio Dominguez De Obaldia, Allwyn Bryner (adult advisor).

Find a complete list of winners here.

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