Can you think of a profitable business idea that also doubles the income of people living in poverty around the world?

This was the challenge posed to students at the University of St. Thomas who participated in this year’s annual Hult Prize. The prize, which is the largest student competition in the world, challenges entrepreneurs to create and launch social business ideas that tackle serious issues faced by billions of people. Teams compete for $1 million in start-up capital, which is awarded to the winning business idea each year.

This year’s competition at St. Thomas was an unprecedented success. Teams presented ideas for social enterprises that would double the income of 10 million people living in crowded urban spaces, pitching everything from a rooftop hydroponic farming system allowing people in urban slums to capitalize on unused space to an investment business targeted to low-income people that rounds up purchases to the nearest dollar and then seamlessly invests the money.

This year, St. Thomas changed their recruitment strategy, targeting undergraduate students while providing those students with mentors from the MBA programs. This strategy ultimately helped the winning team – a diverse group of undergraduates that included Johnny Heller, Bryan Steinsapirk, Bennett Celichowski and Jack Dummer. With the help of their mentors, they even beat a team of MBA students!

Their winning idea would double the income of people living in crowded urban places by using their engineering and business skills to turn trash, a nuisance in many countries, into products through plastics recycling. The business would employ local residents to collect and sort trash which will then be melted down and turned into valuable products.

This is a double win for the team, who are also members of the St. Thomas football team. Due to the team’s dual commitments, they pitched their idea on December 12 from the practice field via video, answering questions from the the judges over speaker phone before competing in the semifinal playoff game against Oregon’s Linfield College for the NCAA Division III championship. The team won that game and faces Mount Union for the Division III title in the Stagg Bowl on Friday, December 18.

This year’s judges for the competition included business and nonprofit leaders from around the Twin Cities who analyzed student pitches from diverse perspectives formed during years of leadership and business experience.

The judges included:

Andrew Bachman
Co-Founder & Chief Medical Officer, LeafLine Labs

Alfred Coleman
Principal, Gray Plant Mooty

Acooa Ellis
Director of Advocacy, Catholic Charities of St. Paul & Minneapolis

Mark Muckerheide
Sr. Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility, Target Corporation

Marcus Owens
Executive Director, Northside Economic Opportunity Network

Apoorva Pasricha
Board Director, Impact Hub-MSP & The Lead Project

Piyumi Samaratunga
Partner; Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP

Marnita Schroedl
Founder & Social Capitalist, Marnita’s Table

Susan Wuollett
Co-Founder & President, Protégé Biomedical

The next step for the winning team is to prepare for the global regional completion in March where they will go head-to-head with top universities from around the world. Their preparation will include assembling an advisory board, creating prototypes and refining their eight-minute pitch.

Are they up for the challenge? All signs point to victory for this enthusiastic and driven team.

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