"Solar Data" wins first round of Hult Prize competition at MC

“Solar Data” wins first round of Hult Prize competition at MC

Dec. 14, 2017

A data center powered by solar panels in the Tunisian desert won Maryville College’s first round of the Hult Prize competition on Dec. 2. For the next three months, the team of three international students and one American – Mouafek Ayadi, Lisa McCann, Shin Kurachi ’19 and Connor Davis ’19 – will continue to refine its concept and sales pitch for “Solar Data” and prepare for regional competitions scheduled for March 2018 in Boston.

“My teammates and I feel amazing,” said Ayadi, captain of the “Solar Data” team, after the announcement was made in a Thaw Hall classroom. “We want to change our countries and regions, so we are grateful for this opportunity and for the American guidance through it.”

Ayadi, a software engineer major at Tunisia Private University in Tunis, Tunisia, is an exchange student at MC for the 2017-2018 academic year through the State Department’s Thomas Jefferson Scholarship program. McCann, an international business major, is an exchange student from Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, and Kurachi, from Japan, is a degree-seeking MC student, also majoring in international business. Davis, a junior finance/accounting major from Maryville, is a 2015 graduate of William Blount High School.

“It’s a great mix,” Ayadi said of his team’s areas of expertise and experience. “That was crucial to the competition.”

Necessary for the storage, management and dissemination of data, a data center is a facility composed of networked computers and associated components, such as telecommunications and storage systems. Currently, the largest data centers in the world can be found in the United Kingdom, India, China and the United States.

The “Solar Data” concept was largely Ayadi’s, who understands well the challenges of Internet access in North Africa and across the Mediterranean region. McCann researched the humanitarian aspects and social impacts of wider and more reliable connectivity. Kurachi conducted research on solar panels, and Davis contributed ideas regarding how to finance the team’s concept.

Competition fits MC mission

Founded in 2009 by Hult International Business School graduate Ahmad Ashkar and run by the Hult Prize Foundation, the Hult Prize competition challenges teams of students enrolled at colleges and universities around the world to develop business plans that address a global social challenge.

Maryville College has participated in the competition since 2015, when Souha Arbi, then a 20-year-old exchange student from Tunisia, organized the first teams.

Teams of three or four students develop innovative startup enterprises to solve the problem and then compete in multiple rounds over several months until a winner is announced. In addition to a $1 million prize, the winning team receives mentorship and advice from the international business community.

The 2018 Hult Prize challenge, which was publicly announced Sept. 21, is “Harnessing the power of energy to transform the lives of 10 million people.” Asserting that energy is the lifeline of people because of its impact on education, agriculture, water, mobility, health and connectivity, the specific challenge to participants this year is: “Can you build scalable, sustainable social enterprises that harness the power of energy to transform the lives of 10 million people by 2025?”

Dr. John Gallagher, professor of management at MC and one of the judges of the Dec. 2 competition, said the Hult Prize is a “solid fit” with the College because of the College’s mission to prepare students who will “work for justice and dedicate a life of creativity and service to the peoples of the world.”

Its benefits to students are numerous, the professor added.

“First, the Hult Prize challenge is always very abstract, vague and huge. Students have to learn how to make it concrete, specific and actionable,” he explained. “Second, they have to test, retest and refine their ideas both individually and as part of a group. Third, they have to acquire new knowledge.

“Fourth, they have to work in teams,” he continued. “Fifth, they have to present in a competition, which raises the stakes for them. More than just a class assignment for a grade, this is a competition against their peers in which there are clear winners and losers.”

Kalyn Carpenter ’19, a junior political science major from Granbury, Texas, was a part of the College’s winning Hult Prize team last year and chose to participate this year as the competition’s campus director. She said she considers competing in Hult Prize “one of the most incredible experiences” of her college career.

“Getting to travel to Boston and meet people from around the world and pitch an idea to global leaders in business and policy was a rewarding experience and insight that many college students don't get,” she said. “This year’s winners can look forward to an enriching weekend with networking opportunities, career consultation, great food and an opportunity to experience the best of what Boston has to offer. Ahmad Ashkar makes it a point to speak with every competitor and give them a great experience.”

Six teams compete

At Maryville College, more than 20 students in six teams presented their concepts to judges on Dec. 2. All teams competed in the morning round, and the top three were selected to present again in the afternoon to determine the winner. Between rounds, finalist teams were allowed some time to alter their concepts and presentations based on judges’ feedback.

“I was pleased with the pitches,” Gallagher said. “The students took the challenge seriously and developed thoughtful and generally innovative responses. There was clearly a significant amount of work invested in this. The presentations were good – students were confident, self-assured and impatient to take the stage because they were so enthusiastic about their ideas.”

In addition to “Solar Data,” concepts selected for the final round included “Lighting Ball” and “Eco-Filter.”

“Our concept is a soccer ball that had a pendulum inside of it and when the soccer ball rolled around, the pendulum swung, creating friction and kinetic energy,” explained Lightning Ball team captain Ariel Kaylor ’19, a junior psychology and human resource management double-major from Memphis, Tenn. “That kinetic energy charges a lithium ion battery, which is also in the ball. The lithium ion battery powers a connectable LED light.”

The ball then provides illumination inside houses and huts with no electricity, Kaylor explained.

Her teammates included fellow juniors Lilly Marttala ’19, Sara Hutchins ’19 and Shane Byerley ’19.

“EcoFilter,” a portable water filtration and storage system, was the concept of Juwan Hill ’20, Elijah Rachell ’18 and Anthony “A.J.” Mahoney, Jr. ’19. Much like a toy water pump found at a swimming pool, the EcoFilter uses kinetic energy to pull water from sources like lakes and streams and is manufactured with special fibers that trap bacteria and other disease-causing pathogens while the water is being drawn into a holding shaft.

“At the end, you can screw off the filter and pour the clean water into a bucket or a water bottle,” said team captain Hill, a sophomore management major from Spring, Texas. “And this is really sustainable and innovative for rural countries around the world.”

Other concepts included products or companies named “VisVentus,” “S.T.A.R.S” and “Anti-Stagnation Innovation.”

VisVentus aimed to bring affordable and sustainable electricity to schools through wind energy. S.T.A.R.S., an acronym for Satellite Telecommunication and Radio Systems, suggested use of satellites already in orbit to introduce the world to free internet access and to recycle and reallocate already used connection devices. Anti-Stagnation Innovation was a solar-powered paddle designed to minimize water stagnation in areas where mosquito-borne illness is prevalent.

10 serve as judges

In addition to Gallagher, nine individuals judged Hult Prize teams on Dec. 2.

One judge, Thomas Lambertucci ’18, a senior management major, came from the student ranks, and others represented for- and non-profit operations:  Chrissy Newton Brooks ’99, Willie Wallace, Alan Jones, John Sibley, Ted Landau, John Barnes, Beth Hamil and Chris Ramsey ’98.  Brooks and Ramsey are MC alumni.

Ramsey, who judged for the first time this year, said social entrepreneurship was a passion of his, and he was impressed by students’ drive, ideas and teamwork.

“It was pretty amazing,” he said of the experience listening to students’ presentations. “They had a really short time – really two months – to come up with a solution to a very big problem.”

The Hult Prize Foundation instructs judges to rank winners based on several criteria, including a concept’s impact on society and its scalability and feasibility. Ramsey said judges had a difficult time choosing the winner but in the end, agreed that Solar Data had the most complete idea.

“There are a few things they’ll need to work on for Boston, which we’ll support them on, but I think what set them apart was the depth at which they went into their idea and how they tried to figure out ‘Is this really a possible idea?’” he said.

Ramsey said he’s excited about the future of the competition at his alma mater.

“It’s great,” he said. “Not just for the business department, but for the campus as a whole, to give Maryville College more brand recognition in society.”


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,146.