Computer Science students win top prize at the 30th Social Impact Showcase

GreenHouse awards more than $18,000 to six student founded enterprises making social and environmental change   By Angelica Marie Sanchez University Relations On November 22, GreenHouse held their 30th Social Impact Showcase at United College, celebrating the next generation of innovators. GreenHouse is a social impact incubator for students and community members who want to create environmental or social change, with their early-stage business venture ideas. 

"The University of Waterloo from its inception has been distinguished by a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship that is really unique in this country," said Richard Myers, principal at United College, during his opening remarks. 

Waterloo is consistently ranked the top university in Canada for entrepreneurs by Pitchbook University Rankings.  

"A decade ago, we noticed the outstanding achievements of Waterloo’s first student incubator, Velocity, which tends to focus on Engineering and Computer Science students. GreenHouse was conceived as a kind of complementary piece to Velocity, focusing on innovation aimed at social or environmental progress. We’re pleased to host students from all six Waterloo faculties in equal numbers over the years, where we have made our programming available at zero cost to student participants." 

The Social Impact Showcase held two rounds of pitches with 10 student-led startups competing for more than $18,000 in funding. From assistive technologies to community programs, GreenHouse announced the six winning teams who received between $500 to $8,000 in funding to support their sustainable ideas. While Rising SheFarmers was awarded the fall 2023 People’s Choice and received an additional $1,000 in funding. 

Three student ventures receive up to $8,000 in funding 

Safi - $8,000 

Waterloo students Miraal Kabir, Martin Turuta and Daria Margarit, created Safi as the world’s first off-the-grid pasteurization monitoring unit to prevent the spread of milk-borne diseases in East Africa.  

"East Africa has the highest global incidence of ill health and death from heart disease, with 30 per cent of deaths in children under the age of five," explained Kabir, a computer science student and co-founder of Safi. 

"That is because right now there’s no access to safe and quality milk. There are many problems in the dairy supply chain, which is why at Safi, we have patented the world’s first off-the-grid pasteurization control unit aimed towards smallholder farmers and vendors." 

In 2023 alone, the Safi team has travelled to Africa twice this year to create a network of creation - with more than 100 farmers in a WhatsApp group chat that communicate back and forth with the Safi team to make a product that’s catered towards them. 

The Safi team previously pitched at the 2021 Concept $5K startup finals and the spring 2023 Social Impact Showcase, where they won and received funding towards their innovative startup. Now, Safi has received the go ahead from the Rwandan dairy supply chain to do a pilot program with the six most sellers (that are all women) in Kenya and Rwanda. 

Patient Companion - $5,000 

Founded by Engineering student Christy Lee, Patient Companion is an easy-to-use solution devised as a communication app between nurses and patients to not only improve patient experience, but also helps reduce stress and burnout for nurses.  

"When I was volunteering at a hospital and at a long-term care center for two years, I saw a constant number of lights flashing across the hallway," Lee said. "With the current nurse call system, the nurses do not know what types of requests the patients are making, and which patients need immediate help." 

Lee explained how on average, nurses are assigned between five to nine patients each, where roughly 56 per cent of requests made by patients are non-urgent requests. As a result, 3 per cent of the time nurses would forget to come back after asking what the patient needs, while 10 per cent of requests get cancelled. 

Patient Companion allows patients to make specific requests via the Patient Companion app that will then automatically prioritize the requests on the nurses’ end. While requests for water or blankets can be distributed among personal safety workers, volunteers or other available staff, which will ultimately reduce the workload and stress for nurses.  

Patient Companion will also be competing as a finalist team in the fall 2023 Velocity Pitch Competition. 

Rising SheFarmers - $2,000 

Founded by master’s student, Lydia Madintin Konlan, Rising SheFarmers want to empower rural women in Ghana to get out of poverty through mushroom farming.  

"I counted a lot of women [in Ghana] who struggle a lot to get access to decent work and employment due to limited access to productive resources," Konlan explained. "We decided that the 57 per cent of women who remain having limited access to work can have something to do by producing mushrooms." 

Rising SheFarmers has been able to produce a supplier to five women in these five communities across Ghana, produce 1,500 bags of mushrooms to these women and make a huge impact in their lives. The market for mushrooms is growing and Konlan and her team are committed to this transformative journey by making agriculture more sustainable for women to work in.  

With the funding, Rising SheFarmers hope to grow their reach from 200 to 300 women and become an incorporation where rural women in Ghana can farm mushrooms for income. 

More than 1,600 community members placed their votes for the People’s Choice award. Where Rising SheFarmers received 54 per cent (900) of the total number of votes, making them the fall 2023 People’s Choice award. Konlan received an additional

Early stage student ventures receive up to $1,500 in funding 

Braille Buddy - $1,500 

Braille Buddy is designing computer-vision powered braille books to help low-vision individuals learn braille independently. Led by Shaahana Naufal, Julia Turner, Mathurah Ravigulan and Ayla Orucevic, the group of fourth-year systems design engineering students are hoping to address the declining literacy rate among American children who have visual impairments and living in low-income communities. 

"We’ve completed our image classification model, where we essentially take an image of each page of our braille book that is being read and isolate each character into its own WhereCafe has developed a mobile application where solo female travellers can type in their location and destination and the app will find the safest path from A to B. The app also provides multiple safety features to make travelling alone a bit easier. The first feature provides users the ability to set up an automated text (or call someone in their contacts) along the way based on their GPS location. The second feature provides the ability to add a report, where the app will then notify other travellers to avoid or navigate away from the reported area.  

"Our competitors don’t know that it is extremely valuable to hear from our solo female travellers and we’ll be the first to implement safe navigation and crowd sourcing in the same platform," Sudswong said. 

Castaneda and Sudswong hopes to tap into the $11.5 billion market that had a record of more than 900 million travellers worldwide in 2022 alone. In the next six months, WhereCafe will start building a community in the Kitchener-Waterloo region for solo female travellers interested in exploring the city. 

Real Research - $500 

Real Research is led by Faculty of Science student Ria Menon, whose student-run venture program is providing undergraduate students with more opportunities to get involved in scientific research labs on campus. 

During the Spring 2023 term, Real Research saw a 100 per cent recommendation rate from their first cohort (20 students) of the program. Where the applications have doubled in size with a staggering 117 applicants for the fall cycle.  

"That just demonstrates the need for the Real Research program to fill in the gap that is missing for undergraduate students and research to be connected," said Menon, who looks forward to expanding the Real Research program to help advance the future of research.  

Menon previously pitched at the spring 2023 Social Impact Showcase where Real Research received the People’s Choice award. Since then, Real Research has launched their pilot program, received and incorporated feedback, and allocated additional

Social Innovation and Impact minor 

During the Social Impact Showcase, Erin Hogan, GreenHouse Programs Manager, announced that United College and the Faculty of Arts will be launching a new Social Innovation and Impact minor in the Fall 2024 term.  

The Social Innovation and Impact minor will open up pathways for existing GreenHouse students and beyond to engage in pitches and projects, while they receive an official academic credit towards their degree. The launch of the new minor program also provides other Waterloo students with the ability to research, design, launch and test social innovations through applied and experiential learning opportunities.