Contestants taking the stage at Seattle’s McCaw Hall made the cut out of an initial pool of 91 applicants, all eager to develop innovative products designed to help solve social problems. Since June, teams have been working with coaches and mentors, refining their pitches, developing business plans, networking and competing in semi- and quarter-finals.
While the top winners will be crowned soon, event organizers say Fast Pitch is about something bigger.
“This is really about building the ability of people who are out there doing amazing work in the community, to help them tell their story so they can get investors,” said Willow Russell, communications director for Social Venture Partners (SVP) Seattle, the philanthropic group organizing the event.
“It’s not just about a competition,” Russell said, “it’s about shoring up their abilities.”
Teams fall into one of five categories: high school, college, early-stage nonprofit, established nonprofit and startup for profit.
One of the contenders in tonight’s fifth-annual showdown will be a team led by Christopher Lee, a high-school sophomore who has plans for IntelliH2O, a portable, inexpensive device and app that tests water purity.
When Lee gave a quick demo of IntelliH2O at a Seattle-area coffee shop last weekend, he practically glowed with enthusiasm as he explained his invention.
The prototype of his device is a smaller-than-palm-sized box with metal probes sticking out of it that create an electrical current. Lee immersed the probes into a glass of the café’s water to measure the liquid’s total dissolved solids. The information is captured by a circuit board inside the device, and then sent via Bluetooth to a cellphone running the IntelliH2O app, where the data are processed and displayed.
The verdict? At slightly fewer than 50 parts per million (ppm) dissolved solids, the app gave the water a green light, pronouncing it “Safe to drink.”
More polluted samples illicit cheeky warnings, including “Questionable water dude.” When the water contains solids at levels that exceed government safety standards, the app orders “Don’t drink that nasty stuff!”
“There are a lot of times in a restaurant where all I have is my phone, and I’d like to test the water purity,” Lee said. Because the device uses Bluetooth for sending its signal, it has more versatility than a product using Wi-Fi, making it useful for people backpacking or traveling abroad.
Lee, a student at Seattle’s Lakeside School, began working on the product in April. Two friends from other schools have worked with him on product design and packaging. For IntelliH2O’s final design, the group has created a blue, roughly droplet-shaped case to house the electronics.
The device doesn’t check for pH, pathogens or identify the solids it detects, but later versions could add additional functionality.
One interesting feature of the device is its ability use geolocation to determine where the water is being tested and post the information on an IntelliH2O map of water quality. The app is also set up to tweet the results.
Other SVP Fast Pitch finalists include:
- The nonprofit Salish Sea Expeditions, which proposes launching a Puget Sound research vessel for teaching students STEM subjects
- Vitruvian Energy, a startup that aims to convert sewage into a biofuel
- Statehouse News Project, a nonprofit seeking to expand a program in which readers fund in-depth news reporting from the state capitol.
- A new nonprofit called Prison Scholar Fund that provides college funding and counseling to inmates working on their education.
Daniela Luzi Tudor, co-founder of a startup business called pala-linq, is among the finalists. Her pitch is for an app and device to help prevent people fighting drug and alcohol addiction from relapsing and returning to their dangerous habits.
“Relapse doesn’t happen when you walk in the bar or pick up that drug,” Tudor said. It happens slowly as people begin to skip group meetings, cut back on exercise and pull away from friends and family who support their recovery.
So pala-linq is developing a Fitbit-like wearable device and mobile-device app that will track physical activity, use geolocation to log a person’s attendance at support groups, record how often a person is emailing and calling people they’ve identified as supportive contacts, and monitor other actions associated with healthy behavior.
If these positive habits begin to wane, the person is warned through gentle notifications including a sad photo of themselves.
“We’re a point of insertion that notices what’s happening before it’s too late,” Tudor said.
Tudor herself is a recovering addict who for many years abused alcohol and cocaine before seeking treatment.
“This is not about doing this alone,” she said. “Will power is not going to make this change alone. It has to do with staying in communication and being accountable.”
There are other mobile applications to aid recovering addicts, Tudor said, but none let a person customize their own program, automate the tracking of their behavior or notify them in real time that their activities have changed in a troubling way. Once the product is available for distribution, Tudor would like to expand to other addictions, such as food, smoking and gaming.
In the Fast Pitch finals, Tudor, Lee and the other teams will vie for awards from a panel of judges, as well as the audience who will vote for their favorites by text message.
Lee’s team is up against SafeWheel, a product being pitched by students from Redmond High School and Tesla STEM High School. SafeWheel, which is led by Shaurya Aggarwal, is developing a steering wheel that can automatically detect a driver’s blood-alcohol level through a technology called “near infrared photometry.”
While Lee is hoping to do well in the finals, he gives his competition kudos for their socially beneficial innovation.
“I hope he does well too,” Lee said of Aggarwal. “I’d like to see that product on the shelves.”
UPDATE: Check out who won what and how much on the SVP website. Spoiler: Christopher Lee and his IntelliH2O team took home first in the high school category.