Two medical students from Australia won Microsoft’s Imagine Cup global student technology competition this morning, prevailing over teams from around the world with Eyenaemia, their app for screening for anemia by taking a picture of the eye.
Apart from producing an innovative app, the team of Jarrel Seah and Jennifer Tang didn’t hurt their chances by making a none-too-subtle reference to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s favorite phrase — talking about the “mobile first, cloud first world” — during the on-stage Q&A with Nadella and other judges at the Washington State Convention Center.
Their pitch is that screening for anemia — a deficiency of healthy red blood cells — can be “as easy as taking a selfie.” The app analyzes a photo of the eye to calculate the risk of anemia, allowing untrained users to do a screening normally limited to doctors. An estimated 2 billion people are affected by anemia worldwide, including a large number of children.
In addition to a $50,000 prize for winning the World Citizenship category, the team won a one-on-one session with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates for winning the Imagine Cup.
“We are both med students, but we both love to code,” said Tang, speaking after the competition as a parade of well-wishers came up to congratulate them. She said they both look up to Gates and are looking forward to soaking in his advice.
The victory isn’t the end of the road for the project. Seah and Tang are currently conducting further research into the technology at two hospitals in Australia. They plan next to partner with different organizations in Australia to get the product to rural and remote areas, and then go worldwide, with help from the Imagine Cup victory.
The finals in Seattle capped months of work by tens of thousands of student teams in the annual event. For the first time this year, Microsoft had the winners in each of the three main Imagine Cup categories pitch a panel of judges on stage for the Imagine Cup.
The winning team in the Innovation category, Estimeet from New Zealand, created an app that estimates the distance of friends from a meeting place, and their estimated time of arrival — inspired by the tradition of showing up late for a meetup or party.
And in the Games category, the winner was Brainy Studios from Russia, which developed a game called TurnOn, about a living electrical spark — delivering an underlying message about energy conservation.
Many of the projects were based on Windows technologies including Windows Phone and Microsoft Azure. If they continue their projects, the next steps for many of the teams will include broadening their reach by expanding to additional mobile platforms.
Addressing the crowd before the winners were announced, Nadella noted that he’s spent the week hanging out with developers, between the Imagine Cup and the Microsoft hackathon that was held on campus earlier this week.
“I wish every week was like this,” he said. Nadella and other execs pointed out that Microsoft itself was a student startup that grew into one of the world’s largest tech companies.
Nadella judged the finals along with Hadi Partovi of Code.org and Reddit’s Erik Martin.
Partovi said afterward that Eyenaemia stood out because they’re not only solving a real problem that many people care about, but also because they have a workable business model. Overall, Partovi said, “I was completely stunned by the technical excellence and the production value” of the student projects and presentations.
Martin agreed that the quality of the student teams overall was very high. “What was really impressive was how far along and well-versed they are in all the different aspects — from the business plan and marketing to UX to the backend logistics, it’s really impressive.”
Microsoft said that the finals would be returning to Seattle next year, a new tradition. Microsoft executive Steve Guggenheimer said it has been an inspiring event for Microsoft employees, to have the finals in Microsoft’s home region.
“The kids are full of energy — they do incredible solutions,” Guggenheimer said. “Part of the energy we get as employees of the company is seeing what people do with the software. There’s nothing better than seeing what students are doing with your software and the finished level of these solutions.”