Imagine a world where a handheld mobile device helps you to navigate an area destroyed by a natural disaster to free a trapped victim from the rubble. Or a world where gaming technology helps to rehabilitate a child suffering from a crippling disease. Believe it or not, thanks to some very talented young minds from Central and Eastern Europe, that world already exists. It might seem trite to talk about hope and opportunity in the midst of the current economic climate, but perspective and placing focus on helping people can also help spark new business opportunities closer to home.
Technology can be a vehicle of opportunity, moving beyond its everyday use in the workplace and social environments to solve some of the world’s toughest problems; and bright young minds are at the forefront of this innovation. Microsoft has long recognised that the two can come together to create a powerful force. Ten years ago, we created Imagine Cup, the global competition that challenges students to make a positive impact on the world by creating solutions based on technology. In the decade since, we have witnessed young people all over the world develop exciting projects to tackle serious global issues. Over the last decade not only have students from Central and Eastern Europe produced extraordinary ideas, but they have also started to realise the full business potential of these innovative ideas.
Our CEE region is alive with entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity. There is a generation of skilled and imaginative young people with a strong belief they can change the world, as well as their own futures, for the better. Take Team GINA, from the Czech Republic, for example. In the 2010 competition, they developed the Geographical Information Assistant, software that enables first responders to use mobile devices for navigating difficult terrain, coordinating with teams and efficiently exchanging geographical information in the wake of natural disasters. Their software is now helping to save lives around the world, and was used in rescue efforts following the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan and severe flooding in Brazil. In 2011 Team GINA returned to Imagine Cup as both alumni and as GINA Systems, a fledgling company. I had the opportunity to spend some time with the team in New York to understand first-hand how Imagine Cup influenced the evolution of their idea into plans for a flourishing business. Last week I met with GINA Systems CEO, Zbyněk Poulíček , in Prague to receive an update on the company’s progress and their new offerings and was impressed by their work. In just over two years, this talented group of students has taken a compelling idea and evolved it into a company, and Microsoft has been able to support them in this journey. Truly an inspiration to teams planning to compete in Imagine Cup this year.
Another great example of the dynamism and creativity bubbling in Central and Eastern Europe is Team Apptenders from Croatia—in the 2011 Imagine Cup, this talented group of students from the University of Zagreb presented a Kinect-based physical therapy solution for children suffering with cerebral palsy. Currently being deployed in hospitals in Croatia and Germany, the app enables time-poor therapists to treat and monitor young patients remotely, in the comfort of their homes. The team has earned recognition from the President of Croatia, and Microsoft also awarded Apptenders an Imagine Cup Grant package in January 2012, which includes $75,000 as well as software and business support through the BizSpark program and the local Microsoft Innovation Centre.
Imagine Cup is an incubator for innovation, helping these young people showcase their technology talent and gain skills in project development, networking, presenting and more. These capabilities will ultimately help them become more employable in the future and encourage an entrepreneurial spirit that can serve as an inspiration to lead the next wave of new technology start-ups in the region. The new Imagine Cup Grants program acts as a greater incentive for students to make a positive impact on our world and opensup real business opportunities in the process. Grant winners can choose to apply to join our BizSpark program that already supports more than 80 tech start-ups in Poland and more than 140 in Czech Republic.
There is no doubt that young people are changing the face of Central and Eastern Europe, and have great potential to build a bright future for the region. These markets are growing and maturing and it’s vital to foster entrepreneurial work in the region, to drive innovative ideas and businesses forward to help stabilise economies that have been impacted by the recession. Over the past ten years, Imagine Cup has served to inspire, encourage and support the youth in CEE. Looking ahead to the 2012 Imagine Cup in Sydney, there will be much more innovation and game-changing ideas to come.