Challenge Showcases Startup Ventures

Nora F Eccles

Jonah Varon ('13) explains the concept behind "Newsle", a web application he designed with Alex Hansen ('13), which enables users to track and read news articles about their friends. "Newsle" was awarded the McKinley Family Grant for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Leadership in Commercial Enterprise at this years Harvard College Innovation Challenge Awards Ceremony.

Dozens of Harvard student startup ideas—including a program to track news articles written about friends and a website that helps student filmmakers to gain exposure—were on display last night in the Radcliffe Gymnasium as part of the Harvard College Innovation Challenge Showcase and Awards Reception.

This year’s challenge was the largest and most competitive in the event’s four year history. Eighty-four teams, composed of 222 participants from over 30 different concentrations, applied to the competition last semester, vying for the chance to win prizes ranging in value from $500 to $10,000.

Semifinalists, whose work was on display last night, were selected by a panel of businesspeople, investors, and innovators, many of whom are Harvard alumni.

The student entrepreneurs set up stations and enthusiastically shared their projects with attendees, who included members of the local business community. Many students arrived in coat and tie and handed out business cards and literature about their ventures.

The proposals were presented in various stages of development, with some students displaying posters and diagrams and others showing off fully functioning programs.


A number of teams, including the designers of pARTake—a website that allows musical groups at Harvard to communicate, offer ideas, and share their music—set up laptops to demonstrate their services.

Some of the ventures on display last night seek to connect people using innovative social networking features. Several speakers at the event attributed this piqued interest in social media to the recent release of “The Social Network,” which dramatizes the life of Facebook founder and former Harvard student Mark E. Zuckberberg.

For example, Newsle, the product of Jonah L. Varon ’13 and Axel R. Hansen ’13, allows users to follow their friends through news stories—rather than Facebook or Twitter feeds—by finding online articles or blog posts that mention them.

The application already has 4,000 users and is tracking news about more than 1.2 million people—friends, contacts, and public figures that the service’s users choose to follow.

Varon and Hansen were among the handful of entrepreneurs who won top awards last night, taking home a $10,000 grant along with recognition as the best commercial startup.

Another social venture, Nexus, won the Harvard Student Agency Prize. The site—created by a team of five sophomores and juniors—aims to connect students with alumni clubs and employers.

The hosts of the awards reception emphasized that, though the selection of winners may seem to conclude with yesterday’s competition, it represents only the beginning for many of these startups.

Varon and Hansen said they were thrilled to be recognized for their hard work.

Like many of the other teams, they said they plan to keep developing their project this summer, and hope that the award funding will help them as they look toward a full release of their program next fall.


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