HomeEducationAcaraA sustainable fuel start-up and a hub for the trans community win the 2017 Acara Challenge

A sustainable fuel start-up and a hub for the trans community win the 2017 Acara Challenge

A service that combines sustainable-fuel delivery and waste pickup in Uganda, and proposal for an e-commerce hub tailored to the needs of people who are transgender won the Gold awards at the 2017 Acara Challenge reception on Thursday, March 2. The annual competition, a signature component of IonE’s Acara program, is open to University of Minnesota students with ideas for ventures that address social and environmental grand challenges.

The top prize winners

Deforestation in Uganda was the springboard for Takadi, winner of the international division. Demand for cooking fuel (firewood and charcoal), the interdisciplinary team of undergraduate and graduate students explained, is what drives deforestation. Clean-burning, sustainable alternatives exist — but aren’t easily accessible. Meanwhile, in the capital city of Kampala, the majority of residents don’t have access to or can’t afford trash collection services, leading to health problems and infrastructure degradation.

The team — Maggie Kristian (CFANS), Claire Irwin (Carlson School), and Ben Ihde and Peder Garnass-Halvorson (Humphrey School) — conceived of their winning solution in one of the University’s new Grand Challenge courses. They’re going to deliver clean-burning briquettes, made of organic waste, and pick up the trash, too. And they plan do it for 25 percent less than what the average Ugandan household already spends every week on cooking charcoal.

Domestic-division winner Folx, an online retail store, is the brainchild of Sebastian Nemec, a cultural entrepreneurship senior at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Why Folx? Nemec points to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, which found that 31 percent of trans people have been denied equal treatment or physically or verbally harassed in places such as retail stores. Finding the right fit in a store stocked with clothes designed for cisgender bodies is also a challenge, Nemec says. And going online isn’t the solution it might appear to be: Nemec spoke from his own experience to the difficulty of finding well-made trans-specific products, such as chest binders, on generic websites.

His site, Folx, will be equal parts e-commerce and community hub, with the aim of increasing his customers’ self-confidence and ultimately helping them live their best lives. Folx was also one of the evening’s two crowd-favorite winners, which comes with a $500 award.

A different kind of program

One key difference between Acara and other similar competitions, says associate director Megan Voorhees, is the long-term support it provides.

“What tends to get talked about is that the students who won last night will get money,” Voorhees explains. But, in fact, the real prize arrives the morning after, when Voorhees sends each team (gold through honorable mention) an invitation into a network of support, from being paired with a mentor to further training opportunities. Fellowship funding (up to $5,000) may be distributed as part of this process, but it’s over time, as reimbursement for project expenses, not as a lump-sum prize.

This hasn’t always been the case. “When we started, it was much more like a traditional business-plan competition,” says program director Fred Rose, who co-founded Acara in 2009.

“I would say the challenge has matured as we’ve understood more about how to have impact on students,” he says. “I mean, Acara is our own venture. All of the things students go through, we go through. What is our theory of change? What is our value proposition?”

The Acara program helps prepare the next generation of leaders, empowering students to address grand challenges —both globally and locally. The Acara Challenge and the ongoing support it provides to participants are made possible through a partnership with the C. Charles Jackson Foundation.


The 2017 Acara Challenge winners are:

International Division


Takadi is a subscription service that combines sustainable fuel delivery and waste collection in one convenient experience. Takadi reduces deforestation and increases urban waste management. Margaret Kristian, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; Claire Irwin, Carlson School of Management; Ben Ihde and Peder Garnaas-Halvorson, Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Silver (3)

Monsun aims to enable Bangalore residents to install rainwater harvesting systems, an alternative clean water source, on their home by offering an affordable lease-to-own payment program. Alana Helin, Tyler Olsen and Rachel Kieser, College of Science and Engineering; Priyanka Shah, Carlson School of Management.

The vision of Luminaria is to install centralized solar charging stations for mid-sized, portable batteries which will bring electricity to households in rural communities of Nicaragua. Marah Cuadrado Labey, Carlson School of Management; Mariah Dooley, College of Science and Engineering.

Vetiver Solutions* seeks to increase the income of rural Haitians by sustainably improving agricultural soil through living plant barriers while simultaneously creating jobs for local women. Jesse Ableson and Leeore Levinstein, College of Biological Sciences; Dalton Schutte, College of Liberal Arts. *Crowd favorite — international division.

Honorable Mentions

Afya Uganda educates and incentivizes poultry farmers to use antibiotic alternatives that create cost savings, improve poultry health, and reduce antibiotic resistance. Felicia Wolf, College of Liberal Arts.

BioChar-Moringa filter is a household water treatment for people in developing and remote countries who suffer from diarrheal disease, especially in children under the age of five. Gillian Capper, School of Public Health.

Recoop is an innovative design organization focused on customized One Health solutions to combat global antibiotic resistance at its primary source: animals. Claire Breitenstein, College of Science and Engineering; Keon Garvin, Carlson School of Management.


Domestic Division


Folx: Because shopping should be easy for any body. Folx* provides one e-commerce store for transgender people to find the products they are looking for. Sebastian Nemec, College of Liberal Arts – Duluth. *Crowd favorite — domestic division.


The Local Beat is a marketing ecosystem promoting prosperity for small, local farmers by revolutionizing logistics, purchasing power, safety and what consumers know about their food. Graham Ambrose, Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Bronze (2)

La Mesa is a local, plant-based meal kit delivery service, providing sustainably sourced meal options to busy adults. Maria Bonilla, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

One Day Tech provides K-12 teachers in low-income communities an easy-to-use tool that automates the classrooms management, effortlessly keeps parents up-to-date, and builds a student-centered culture of achievement. Harpreet Sandhawalia and Zachary Hofeld, Carlson School of Management.

Honorable Mentions

Healthcare Navigator: A program where culturally-competent, bilingual staff build personal connections with recent immigrant families, empowering them to use preventive care and community resources. Xiaohui Yu, School of Nursing.

Let’s Stop Traffick reduces sex trafficking in Minneapolis by raising awareness and targeting buyers to reduce demand. Christy Choi, College of Pharmacy; Eva Okedele, School of Public Health; Sarah Lentz, College of Biological Sciences.

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