UMD Initiative to Award Up to $2M for Student Solutions to Grand Challenges

exterior of the IDEA Factory lit up at night

By Lauren Brown for Maryland Today

University of Maryland students with bold solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems could soon graduate with not just a degree, but also a startup company with up to $2 million in investments.

The university is launching an XPRIZE-inspired initiative incentivizing students’ technology innovations—led by one of the original funders of the competition series that generously rewards radical approaches to global challenges, ranging from rising atmospheric carbon to the growing threat of wildfires.

The xFoundry@UMD will recruit students committed to doing good on a large scale, then train them over 15 months to work across disciplines while gaining valuable knowledge and experience as they build their projects. Student teams will then face off at an annual competition to have their solution win funding and support from a group of seasoned executives to form a new venture.

"Terps harness their creativity, energy and talent to create tangible, meaningful change in the world,” said university President Darryll J. Pines. “This experimental program will offer students a one-of-a-kind competition that will take on the grand challenges of our time."

Amir Ansari, an engineer, serial entrepreneur and inventor with 60-plus patents, will oversee the xFoundry in his new role as co-founder and inaugural executive director of the university’s E.A. Fernandez IDEA Factory, a high-tech workshop designed to foster collaboration across engineering, the arts and humanities, science and business.

Ansari and his family were title sponsors of the 2004 Ansari XPRIZE that awarded $10 million to the creators of the first reusable manned commercial spacecraft (which went on to become the basis for Virgin Galactic). He remains on the board of the XPRIZE Foundation as it sponsors other contests aimed at sparking solutions in domains such as energy, climate, equity, health and education.

The shared mission of the foundation and the university to tackle grand challenges grabbed his attention, and the robust entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus and the intellect and enthusiasm of the students won him over.

“I love this strategic mission of the community coming together to solve problems,” Ansari said. “I’m hoping what will happen now is a new way of introducing a value proposition for spending time at a university: to graduate students armed with the ability to do something significant that can also become very successful for them.”

Students in the xFoundry@UMD program, called Xperience, can earn credits toward their degrees as they participate in its four components:

  • Xplore: An interactive event brings together UMD faculty, staff and students as well as investors for presentations on the two options for topics for the inaugural cohort. The audience votes on which one to move forward with.

  • Xperiment: In spring and summer courses, 45 selected students learn about the mindset of entrepreneurship: the basics of team building, collaboration and product development methodologies. They form their multidisciplinary teams, develop a business plan for their idea, and pitch it to advance to the next stage in the competition.

  • Xcelerate: In the following fall and spring semesters, teams work with instructors and xFoundry mentors to build and test their prototype, begin to sell it, and present it at the competition in the spring.

  • Xecute: The winning team receives a venture with at least $250,000 and up to $2 million in investors’ funds to launch the company, with experienced corporate executives to guide them through their first year. Upon graduation, winning team members become co-founders working on the venture’s product team, complete with a salary and equity stake.

Ansari said he’d been pushing the idea of a “solution factory” for the XPRIZE Foundation that would join innovators from disparate fields to make collaborative work more efficient when he learned of UMD’s IDEA Factory. He said Maryland’s space will do just that, with students from every major welcomed to share—or generate—fresh ideas to do good in the world.

“These are smart students,” he said. “They have passion, energy and intellect. With a little exposure to the right elements and some light guidance, they can be solving real problems facing our society, and creating a better world for everyone.”

Published October 4, 2023