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Global innovation challenge expands in scope and embarks on a new research mission

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    WMGIC V:  Student teams competed virtually for prizes in this fifth annual hackathon-style competition. This year’s problem dealt with barriers to regulation of the palm oil industry.  Courtesy photo
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Organizers of the Global Innovation Challenge at William & Mary (WMGIC) drew on the lessons from last year’s pandemic pivot to online format to put together an even larger WMGIC V for 2021.

WMGIC is a student-run hackathon-style competition, in which interdisciplinary teams have 24 hours to propose solutions to relevant, real-world international and sustainable development challenges. The competitors are introduced to the case at the start of the event and work with mentors with expertise in the field of study to propose solutions in one of four streams: governance, social entrepreneurship, technology and business consulting.

The teams pitch their concepts to a panel of judges who are experts in international and sustainable development sectors and the winning teams receive cash prizes. This year, the case for WMGIC V was titled “Reducing Barriers to Regulation in the Kalimantan Palm Oil Industry.” The student teams were tasked with developing solutions that take into account the multiple constituencies involved and who are affected by the black-market practices plaguing the palm oil industry in Indonesia.

The final judging panel of senior-level policymakers and practitioners included USAID’s former Chief Innovation Officer Alexis Bonnell of Google and Craig W. Broderick ’81, P ’16, corporate director and former chief risk officer at Goldman Sachs.

“WMGIC provides a wonderful opportunity for students to address complex real-life issues and in doing so, requires creative multi-disciplined thinking,” said Broderick, a William & Mary Alumni Medallion recipient. “Further, the diverse panel of final judges was reflective of the multiple constituencies whose views and concerns would need to be addressed.”

WMGIC V expanded the scope of the competition, welcoming 30 student teams from 15 universities, including Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University as well as host school William & Mary.

The executive team of ten William & Mary undergraduates doubled the number of participating mentors and judges since last year’s event. With more than 175 mentors, judges and students participating worldwide, WMGIC V was the largest variation of the event since its founding in 2017. Expanding the case competition's scope and access was one of the main priorities for WMGIC’s Executive Director, Thomas Liu ’22.

“WMGIC serves as a highly interactive platform for undergraduate students to get exposed to international and sustainable development,” said Thomas Liu, who is currently taking a gap year and who ran the event from Taiwan. “Student teams receiving direct access to and guidance from our dedicated network—including young professional mentors, industry judges and for the first time, an esteemed panel of final judges—serve as the secret to WMGIC's success."

WMGIC shifted to a virtual format in 2020 and 2021, which allowed the competition to increase participation, despite the ongoing pandemic. WMGIC saw participants and guests from France, Indonesia, Singapore, Russia, the United Kingdom and throughout the United States.

 “Working remotely on WMGIC V was a really fulfilling experience,” Ariana Gueranmayeh, a finalist from the university of Virginia, said. “We enjoyed the opportunity being fully remote gave the WMGIC exec to bring in a diverse group of mentors from all over the world because their perspectives positively aided us.”

The judges awarded the WMGIC V grand prize to a team consisting of William & Mary students Nathan Liu ’22, Kshamata Neupane ’22, Fatima Pate ’23, Bennett Hawley ’23 and Alice Li from both William & Mary and the University of St Andrews. Their solution sought to leverage the investment and consumer base of Whole Foods & Amazon in order to maximize global impact through a palm oil certification scheme, vertically integrated supply chain and land buy-back program.

“WMGIC highlights the value of fast thinking, nimble problem solving and crazy dreaming,” said Liu. “By working with teammates from very different academic backgrounds, we could dream big and spotlight opportunities we would have missed.”

The WMGIC executive team is currently expanding the competition’s scope beyond just 24 hours by incorporating a new research initiative with William & Mary’s Institute for Integrative Conservation (IIC). The WMGIC team will work alongside partner organizations to conduct applied research during the summer of 2021, to assess the feasibility of translating proposals from the WMGIC competition into real-world solutions to the global challenges.

“WMGIC’s new innovation-driven research model will enable the team to work alongside external partners to conduct research that will translate the innovative, student-generated solutions from WMGIC into applied solutions to global conservation and development challenges,” said Erica Garroutte, program manager of the IIC. She added that WMGIC’s executive team will pilot their combination competition-research model this summer, while developing research deliverables consistent with the IIC’s mission.

“We look forward to the possibility of working with the WMGIC research team to collaborate on innovative research models and bringing fresh ideas to life,” said Martin from the World Resource Institute.

The WMGIC success and recent expansion is possible because of the support of numerous W&M and external partners. W&M’s Global Research Institute has been the primary sponsor for the development and expansion of WMGIC over the last 7 years. The GRI sponsors 10 different research labs and 40 student/faculty research teams, which involve more than 60 faculty and staff and over 200 students.

“The Global Research Institute has been the primary sponsor and champion of our organization since its inception,” Hannah Garfinkel ’22 said. “They were the first to suggest expanding our model into applicable research and their successful record with student innovation-driven projects demonstrates the knowledge and leadership to advise us as we embark on this journey.”

In 2019, William & Mary’s Committee on Sustainability supported WMGIC with Green Fee funding, allowing the team to rebrand the case document around the UN Sustainable Development Goals and this year, the Green Fee award went towards case development and student research funding.

After learning about WMGIC’s expansion and the new innovation-driven research, event co-founders Sarah Martin ’17 and Samyu Jothishankar ’17 were astonished by the impact their initial idea made in five short years.

“We take immense pride in the growth of WMGIC in becoming the premier hackathon style international and development case competition in the United States,” they said in a statement. “As a student-run organization, WMGIC highlights some of the best William & Mary has to offer, from driven and intelligent students to chances to create meaningful, impactful change.”