One team came in with a patent for a hand-held machine to diagnose vision loss. They came in with chewing gum.
Sweet Bites, a team of five Penn students, won the Hult Prize regional competition in Boston over spring break. Their winning design was chewing gum that alleviates tooth decay.
The Hult Prize, nicknamed “the Nobel Prize for students” by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, is a student social entrepreneurship competition partnered with President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. The largest of its kind internationally, the competition challenges teams to create a business plan to solve a global social problem.
The Penn students went up against 44 other teams in Boston and will compete against the five other teams who won regional competitions in San Francisco, London, Dubai, Shanghai and Sao Paulo for the $1 million prize. Eleven thousand teams originally entered the competition from over 350 schools worldwide.
This year, students proposed businesses that would treat non-communicable diseases for 25 million people living in urban slums within the next five years. Their product contains xylitol, a sugar substitute that has been shown to prevent cavities, team member and College senior Eric Kauderer-Abrams said.
Spencer Penn, the team captain and Wharton senior, who submatriculated into Engineering 2015, said that the gum is not intended to replace regular brushing and flossing, but instead is an “auxiliary oral hygiene product.”
College seniors Josh Tycko and Thoba Grenville-Grey and Engineering junior Morgan Snyder are also members of Sweet Bites.
The team emphasized that simplicity is key when addressing such a widespread issue for hard-to-reach populations. Penn said their idea of using chewing gum has such potential because it “[embeds] a health solution in something people already know and love.”
Last week, the team met with researchers and administrators at the School of Dental Medicine who will be working with them on the technical details of the product and assisting them in reaching dental professionals in their target market.
They plan to pilot the product in Bangalore, India, and they worked hard to make sure their chewing gum concept would work within that culture.
Snyder spent a year living and working in the urban areas of Bangalore, and she said many people already chew other products on a regular basis, so the idea of introducing a new chewing gum makes sense for their market.
“Rather than starting from the assumption that high-tech solutions will work no matter where they land, we talked about how particular social fabrics might enable interventions to make sense and successfully gain traction on the ground,” Undergraduate Chair of the Department of Anthropology and one of their advisors Adriana Petryna said in an email.
Tycko noted that the product is not just a business venture. “The idea is not to just be one more candy that’s available on the shelves,” he said. “There has to be a community that’s galvanized by the social impact part, not just the business.”
That’s where their distribution plan comes in.
People wouldn’t just be getting gum when they buy the product . The packaging of the chewing gum would include information about dental care to educate people about how to address tooth decay in general.
This particular aspect of the product was inspired by conversations with Petryna.
“What they came up with makes perfect anthropological sense,” Petryna said. “Poor people often buy things in very small increments — be it their chewing gum, their medicines or their home building materials. Drug packaging and sale strategies in many poor countries are often designed with these economics in mind.”
The team plans to work with local “ambassadors” in Bangalore to tap into the existing social networks of the community.
During her time in India, Snyder noticed that women often sold small goods for cash, like hard candies, herbs or strings of flowers. Since women are also the primary decision makers in families concerning health matters, Sweet Bites intends to reach out to local women entrepreneurs so that they can sell the gum to their communities to supplement their income.
Without working with these local women, Tycko said it would be extremely difficult to reach their customers, but drawing upon their pre-existing connections with the community makes access much easier.
Over the summer, Sweet Bites and the five other remaining teams will participate in a summer accelerator program in Boston to help them further develop their projects. With the help of some funding from the competition, the team is planning a trip to Bangalore this summer to start working with their target market.
The Clinton Global Initiative will host the final round of the competition in September, and President Clinton will personally award the winners the $1 million prize.
Penn is optimistic about their chances of beating out the other five teams. “We have a very, very decent shot,” he said.
“Definitely one in six,” Tycko added.
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