Friday, January 15, 2010

Winter Forum Participants: In It to Win It (Day 2)

Day 1 of the inaugural Winter Forum witnessed an impressive range of activities, from lectures to thoughtful deliberation and passionate debate. Day 2 would promise no less.

At a meeting before winter break, law school professor Bill Brown introduced a special component of the Winter Forum: a startup business competition. He charged students with the task of creating a ‘green’ business that would maximize capital while maintaining a negative carbon footprint. Students were given $1 million to get the theoretical business off the ground.

Most work for the competition occurred over break, especially during the last few days.
Teams struggled to develop product / service design, marketing and financing strategies and detailed expense reports. Hundreds of details had to be tinkered with and agreed upon.

The results of this effort were presented Tuesday afternoon, after a morning spent discussing the merits and disadvantages of commercializing wind power in the United States. A panel of four venture capitalists would judge the teams’ proposals.

To get things started, competition organizer Bill Brown described the opportunities offered by green businesses. “We have a problem, and policy is likely to fall short. Innovation is essential, when all else fails and even before you try all else,” Brown said.

He noted how humans have faced seemingly insurmountable problems in the past -- pestilence, oppression and starvation, to name a few -- but applied science and technology made them manageable. He encouraged students to see innovation as the way forward.

“As a university, it’s our obligation to help you think of opportunity as more than just a job,” Brown said.

Photo credit: Hua FanTeam 1 began the presentations with their model for optimizing farmer’s markets. Other ideas ranged from an ecotourism travel site to building retrofitting, home energy metering, and green product certification. Team 4 proposed the winning idea: recycled cellulosic insulation to be installed in homes in Malaysia, an emerging market with fast-increasing emissions. The team received a $2,000 check from President Brodhead at a reception following the competition.

Some students might shrink from returning to school early and working hard when they could be relaxing. But Winter Forum participants saw an opportunity to give a little and gain a lot. For their time and their attention, students learned the ins and outs of an issue, flexed their communication skills and interacted with dedicated faculty.

I did not know what to expect from the Winter Forum. I put in the work over break, did research and emailed teammates I hadn’t even met in person, hoping that it would be good for something. As a result of the process, I built my group dynamics skills and developed relationships with wonderful teammates and faculty sponsors. For its first year, I believe the Forum was very successful at fulfilling its objectives, and no doubt will continue to grow in coming years.

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