Microsoft’s Imagine Cup Proves Innovation is Alive and Well in Canada

As one of the largest tech companies in the world, Microsoft has to continually innovate as well as foster the scene it helped make ubiquitous.

The Seattle-based company does the former many different ways: opening offices in new cities, helping to make tech more accessible, exploring new platforms such as virtual and mixed reality, or by bringing in new partners and introducing them to the world through careful integration with flagship products. But all of those solutions either appeal to Microsoft’s retail side of things or build B2B relationships, so the company is left to search out ways to help the technology scene and the budding entrepreneurs within it find a soapbox to share their ideas with the world. And honestly, what better way to do that than to take hundreds of students who have little to no pitching experience and pit them against each other to see who’s cutting-edge idea reigns supreme?

Microsoft’s Imagine Cup does just that, and as its sixteenth year comes to an end, the competition offered a deep look into the university-level startup and innovation scene across the world. Firstly (spoiler alert)–Canada took home this year’s Imagine Cup, as two students showed off their prosthetics project and wowed the judges enough to secure over $130,000 in prizes, as well as a sit down with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. But as Nadella said on-stage at the Cup’s finals in Seattle, and as every Microsoft evangelist echoed throughout the competition, it’s hardly about winning, though that does feel nice. The Imagine Cup is about highlighting the innovation that exists at all levels and in every country, and each of the finalists proved that statement over and over.

Over 40,000 students from 200 countries applied to compete in the Imagine Cup, creating projects at their schools showcasing ingenious ideas and the ability to scale them into real businesses. After a careful selection process, 49 teams were flown to Microsoft’s campus to compete for the big prize. There could only be one first-place winner, but the experiences these teams bring back home is worth more than the memories of Seattle’s Pike Place and the Microsoft swag jammed into their carry-ons.

Three Canadian teams flew out to take part in the finals and pitch their way to glory, but it’s important to note that these projects are not necessarily businesses. They are not incorporated, do not have executive teams, and definitely do not have massive office spaces. But apart from that, these teams have advanced ideas, working prototypes, letters of interest from leaders in their industry, and the will to turn their ideas into something more.

Hachy (University of Waterloo)

Hachy, created by Eugene Wang, is an autonomous egg incubating tool that can help rural farmers shave time off their typical egg collection duties. It works by inserting a phone into a device to light up and take pictures of the egg, which is then fed into a machine learning-powered platform that can tell exactly how fresh and far along that egg is. Hachy’s prototypes were made with cardboard and a majority of the diagrams drawn by hand, a testament to how grassroots the project is—but that hardly means the project isn’t fully realized. Wang, Hachy’s creator, made it to the final 18 through a rousing wild card pitch that saw him chant his company’s name, ending the pitch with a dramatic jump off of the stage. That was enough for his peers to vote him into the finals.

Hachy’s Eugene Wang pitching (egg in hand) at Imagine Cup.

Hachy is still a prototype, but it has garnered the interest of researchers from the Dairy Association of China who think it could have potential in enterprise-level farmers. This enthusiasm is exciting for Wang, as he grew up in China and the inspiration for Hachy came from his time there. Realistically though, he’s just excited to have that formal interest and be able to show off his project.

“When you start as a student, you don’t know many large enterprise farms, so you think about the project works for the small farmers,” he says. “I don’t really get to decide where it goes, the market decides where it goes.”

Muma (University of Toronto)

Muma is another one of the Canadian projects that made its way to the final 49. Irene Lin, Shunzhe Yu, YiMing Han, Gabriel Bussieres and Adamo Carolli created Muma, short for music-matching AI, during a capstone course at the University of Toronto. The project can help sort through YouTube videos of covers and other songs using a neural network and ensure royalties and other accreditations go to the person who has the rights to that song. Right now, typical music-sorting software does 80 per cent of the job, and Muma can help reach that other missing 20 per cent. It can even source lyrics from peripheral content like comments.

Carolli, Lin and Han from Muma.

“We’re in talks of being incorporated and that’s moving into its final stage, and from there we want to keep on moving forward to try and hire new people and grow as a company,” says Carolli.

Muma envisions that its software could add over $250 million in new royalties to North America alone each year, a massive number for an industry that is undergoing a stark digital shift. They are currently working with the massive performance rights organization SOCAN and have plans to incorporate Muma into their existing platform.

SmartARM (University of Toronto / UOIT)

As for this year’s Imagine Cup winners, SmartARM is set to really take off over the next year with a seed round coming soon and interest from Canada’s federal office of Innovation. It is a prosthetic arm guided by computer vision and a camera in the palm that can pick up objects and adjust the grip accordingly, Better yet, it comes in under $100, a huge contrast to the $100,000 bionic arms currently on the market. But the two founders Hamayal Choudhry and Samin Khan had nothing but respect and admiration for their competition.

Choudhry and Khan pitching SmartARM at the Imagine Cup finals.

“Some of these projects are really niche solutions to huge problems that are affecting people in select areas of the world,” says Choudhry. “Being here, you wouldn’t imagine that’s something that could affect someone else negatively. It’s really opened our eyes as well.”

“Hachy really stood out to me,” Khan says, shouting out his fellow Canadian. “I like how Eugene connected his project to him growing up back home. He has this really unique perspective that he approached with his egg-candling problem, so I’m really looking forward to seeing his work progress.”

The competitors were not the only ones who saw that each project at the Imagine Cup had the chance to impact how real people live their lives. The judges at the grand finals took the time to point out how the students developed solutions that could bring about real change.

“One of the things I loved is that they were solving real problems that mattered to people,” explained Anil Dash, CEO of Glitch. “It wasn’t tech for tech’s sake, this was caring about the impact they can have to make a difference, and I loved seeing that from every single project.”

The Imagine Cup was claimed by Canada this year, which is the added evidence that the country’s innovation scene is better than fine—it’s taking off at unprecedented rates. But even if SmartARM didn’t take home the win, these three projects and the engineers and developers behind them are proof that the future is in good hands, even if they may be prosthetic.