St. Thomas Team Places in Top Five at Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge Finals

The Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge (GSIC) virtual global finals were held in mid-June and St. Thomas’ BraillEazy ended up as one of the top five teams in the competition.  

BraillEazy won the Most Socially Innovative Award ($1,000), the Audience Choice Award in their Sustainable Development Goal Track ($1,000) and was the runner-up for the Wireless Impact Reach Award ($2,000). 

BraillEazy is an innovative smartphone case that allows blind people to learn and use braille from the comfort of their palm. Team: Abenezer Ayana (senior, computer science); Amanda Baumgart '20 (entrepreneurship); Mahamud Hussein (junior, electrical engineering and physics); Brooke Catton (sophomore, mechanical engineering); Faiso Hirsi (senior, computer science) and Lisan Hasnain (second-year Dougherty Family College student, computer science major).  

Ayana said it was a “great honor” to be recognized at the Fowler GSIC and go through the experience with DigiConnections, another St. Thomas team that took part in the competition.  

“It is indicative of the strong work that the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship does in developing entrepreneurs that are driven to bring social change and advance the common good,” Ayana said. “The Fowler GSIC is more than a competition; it's a unique space for many global ventures to come together, learn and present their problem-solving ideas focused on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. BraillEazy went with a mission to shed light on the rising braille illiteracy rate among the blind community – which is hindering their social and financial independence – and present an innovative solution that helps teach braille through a smartphone case. With the support received at the Fowler GSICBraillEazy is now on track to bring our innovation to life and help bridge the technology and opportunity gap for the blind.” 

Baumgart said the team is grateful for everyone who helped them along the way including the faculty and staff at the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship.  

“It was absolutely insane to see how far we've made it,” Baumgart said. “I still remember applying to the Fowler Business Concept Challenge my very first semester at St. Thomas and getting a polite letter telling me to keep trying. I didn't even make it to the semifinals. And now, BraillEazy has literally won some global awards! It's so crazy, I still can't really believe it. It wasn't too long ago that we were just a couple of kids with a dream.” 

Hasnain recently joined the team and has been advising them on how to improve their target market while connecting them to various organizations serving the Twin Cities blind community. 

“As a blind student myself, I feel that BraillEazy will make reading braille more efficient and effective,” Hasnain said. “The Fowler GSIC has given us the opportunity to bring more innovation and creativity to the entire process.” 

The Fowler GSIC is a multi-round social venture competition inviting students to engage with one or more of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by developing a sustainable social venture. The finals featured 43 student-led ventures from 12 countries with $60,000 in seed funding awarded to 14 teams 

Since the Global Social Innovation Challenge was established in 2011 by the University of San Diego it has inspired and supported social innovators around the world. In 2019, with the generous support of Ron and Alexis Fowler, the challenge was renamed and a collaboration with the University of St. Thomas was launched.  

The University of San Diego hosted this year’s Fowler GSIC Global Finals. The University of St. Thomas will host the event in summer 2021. This final round of the competition will be hosted on an alternating basis by both universities.