Skip to content

Stretch of the Imagination

With a tight deadline, students make the most of an innovation contest.

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

View photo album >>

By Richard L. Brandt

As Stanford Entrepreneurship Week opens, several hundred students are anticipating the moment that Tina Seelig, onstage at Memorial Auditorium, gives up the secret they've been waiting to hear. The executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program is simultaneously whipping up the audience's enthusiasm, making housekeeping announcements and withholding until the last minute one essential detail. She's here to evangelize the 2008 Innovation Challenge, wherein teams will get 5½ days to make as much value as possible out of a mundane object.

Last year's first international Innovation Challenge was conducted with Post-its, and on this Friday afternoon in February the crowd watches the premiere of a documentary, Imagine It!, about some of the ways the 2007 participants deployed the colorful sticky notes. Post-its were used to collect money for microlending or charities, to conduct a pay-it-forward campaign of random compliments, to design disposable Braille signage, and to compose music made of measures gathered one per contributor.

Some in this audience already have forged teams: engineering, design and business profs have been quick to encourage participation. Registered teams will complete their entries by uploading three-minute videos to YouTube by 9 a.m. Thursday. Eclectic prizes have been lined up—one lucky team will get to play Deathball with viral marketing guru Tim Draper, another will hear Al Gore speak at a Deloitte world meeting—but in keeping with the freewheeling nature of the contest, the prize categories will be decided after the entries come in. Besides, the true reward might not be a prize, but a win to put on one's résumé or—imagine it!—a marketable idea.

Seelig, PhD '85, finishes thanking sponsors and inviting people to eWeek events such as the creativity workshop or venture capitalist speed-dating. Finally comes the big reveal. What will the instant entrepreneurs spend their next 135 hours contemplating? Rubber bands.

In the gray Tuesday afternoon, seven of the 13 members of Rubberband Together are at Old Union tapping at their laptops or brainstorming on the whiteboard or delivering, like Vivian Yea-Shih Wang, '09, some discouraging words: “Home Depot didn't have rubber bands. They said they could only donate, like, plywood or something.”

When you want to lobby for breast-cancer research, plywood might be one of the few items to seem even less relevant than rubber bands. Rubberband Together has devised an awareness campaign and is creating a website linked to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. For every signature the team collects on the site, it will add a rubber band to a rubber band ball, documenting its growth.

Members have sent e-mails to friends and family, made posters for dining halls, posted information on Facebook sites, sent notices to newspapers and radio stations, spent time buttonholing people. “I've been sleeping five or six hours a night; otherwise I'm working on this pretty much full time,” says Richard Lo, '11.

Late one night doctoral candidate Mickey Pentecost had to bolt from a Farm Band Aid meeting because he had cells dying in the lab. This team recognized that fresh produce often comes bundled in a rubber band. Partnering with Farm Aid and Whole Foods, they have conjectured that the grocery-store PLU (product look up) code could be printed on the bands of food grown locally; consumers then could go online and learn more about the farms next door. The team polled shoppers who said they'd happily pay a nickel or dime more for their asparagus if they could support a local grower. No one from Farm Band Aid slept Wednesday night when the video was being made, but the team would win the competition's Green Prize.

Team Do Band won the Biggest Impact prize by starting with the recognition that “Everybody has their own cause.” The team stamped rubber bands with a web address and a serial number, then gave them out. Each individual who took a band had to pledge to meet some precise personal goal, to record its completion online, and then pass the band on. The video starred rubber band #47. Do Bands inspired a variety of small missions accomplished, including “tons of phone calls to mothers” and more than $500 donated to charities of Do Band wearers' choosing.

Entrepreneurs emphasize that the course of true innovation ne'er runs smooth. The Academic Technology Lab at Meyer Library could hardly loan its 12 mini DV camcorders fast enough to those among the 50 competing teams who didn't find equipment elsewhere. The Stanford Secret Sharing team devised a participatory art project wherein passersby could write down a secret and then hang it on a web of rubber bands set up on wooden poles planted in the grass at White Plaza. The team set up its web Sunday night, only to find the following morning that maintenance crews had dismantled it. The team built it again—and took home the tournament's Freud Prize.

That project's popularity overwhelmed a similar idea called the Stanford Rubber Wishing Tree. That team, taking note of how much more popular it proved to post secrets than wishes, made its video a testament to the entrepreneurial maxim “fail early, fail fast.” The judges awarded that entry its Biggest Failure Prize, a day with Highland Capital Partners.

This article was modified from the print version of the magazine.

Comments (0)

  • Be the first one to add a comment. You must log in to comment.



Your Rating
Average Rating



Be the first one to tag this!