Hult Case Competition: Northwestern Students Address Issues Billions Face Worldwide

This past month, a team of students from Northwestern University competed in the Hult Case Competition in San Francisco. This annual competition is a start-up accelerator for aspiring young entrepreneurs attending universities around the world. It aims to identify and launch the most compelling social business ideas – start-up enterprises that tackle serious issues faced by billions of people. The winning team receives 1 million USD in seed capital as well as mentorship and advice from the international business community. The Northwestern team was sponsored by the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Feinberg’s Center for Global Health.

Smitha Sarma, Justin Huelman, Jared Davis, and Amber Meriwether faced the particular challenge of reducing the burden of non-communicable disease in urban slums using a social enterprise that could impact 25 million people in 5 years. The Northwestern team’s pitch was to use microfinancing to increase access to nicotine replacement therapy and counseling in urban slums so that tobacco users had a way out.

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I spoke with team members after the competition.

How did you get involved in the Hult Case Competition? 

Amber Meriwether: Justin and I are both part of Northwestern’s NUVention: Medical Innovation program and thought this would be a great opportunity for us to further pursue our passion for improving healthcare. Once we formed our team, that consisted of Smitha Sharma (MD, 2017), Jared Davis (M. Ed., 2011), Justin Huelman (M.Eng., 2015) and myself (JD, MA 2014), we submitted a first round application in December. We were pleasantly shocked when we found out in January that we were one of 300 teams selected for the semi-finals from more than 10,000 around the world.

What was the preparation like leading up to the competition?

Smitha Sarma: Our preparation involved meetings and phone calls with doctors and business experts, hours spent googling articles on non-communicable diseases and social entrepreneurship, and countless flowcharts and lists drawn out on the white board trying to come up with a good business model. Our final idea looked nothing like our original one!

Describe the competition process and atmosphere, what was it like on the actual competition day? Give us a little background on the case as well.

Smitha Sarma: This year’s challenge was to create a business that addresses the burden of chronic disease in urban slums. Our idea was to create a tobacco cessation program that enables low-income populations to overcome their addiction. We learned that tobacco kills nearly 6 million people each year, and that 80% of the world’s one billion smokers live in low and middle-income countries. However, most of these individuals have no access to the proper medications or support mechanisms to successfully quit. Thus, if we figure out a way to introduce a comprehensive cessation program, we have the potential to impact many lives.

The regional competition took place at the Hult International Business School in San Francisco. There were 50 teams representing universities from around the world. Most teams consisted of MBA students; my team was unique in that regard. The first day, we heard from experienced entrepreneurs who gave us encouraging advice. My favorite talk was given by Adam Cheyer, the inventor of Siri. He spent 17 years coming up with his product, going through countless iterations. He told us that if you have a vision and you are persistent, you will go on to do great things. The next day, we woke up early, rehearsed our presentation over and over again, and gave our 12 minute pitch to an expert panel of judges, who were leaders in healthcare, innovation and consulting. Out of the 50 teams, 1 was selected to proceed to the accelerator. The winning team consisted of three women engineering/business students from MIT. Their business was to manufacture a negative pressure wound healing device that will help slum dwellers with foot ulcers due to diabetes and other complications. It was a brilliant idea! They will present their idea to President Clinton next summer, competing against 5 other teams for the $1M grand prize.

What would you say is the most valuable thing you got out of the competition? Is there anything you learned from the winning team’s solution?

Smitha Sarma: After the competition, Hult hosted a nice reception, giving the students and judges a chance to socialize. Our team spoke with the judges who heard our pitch and asked them for advice. I learned three important things that evening. First, if you have 12 minutes to give a presentation and host a Q&A session, limit your talk to 6 minutes. It is critical that you only spend half the allotted time giving your pitch, to allow the audience plenty of time to ask questions. Secondly, know your audience. If you are presenting to a panel of experts, don’t spent a lot of time giving them background information. Cut to the chase and wow them with your idea!  And finally, if you notice your audience questioning a statement you made, don’t wait for the Q&A session to address their concerns. Explicitly say “Hey, I know you might be thinking this, but let me clarify.” It is better to dispel their skepticism or confusion up front.

The winning team had spent years developing their prototype, testing it out in low-income settings and creating a sustainable business model. This team was well on its way to creating a real company and the Hult Prize was its big break. The ladies from MIT inspired me to keep trying – to be passionate about a cause and truly run with it.

Finally, do you have any advice for other individuals hoping to compete in a global health case competition?

Smitha Sarma: If you want to compete in a global health or social entrepreneurship case competition, just go for it! It doesn’t matter if you’re new to such things. You will learn and grow so much in the process. Besides, it’s fun being the underdog 🙂

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