By Jason Cohen
For the third consecutive year, a Livingston Launch Club team qualified as a finalist in MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Launch Club global competition. The team was ranked among the top 20 teams in the world out of approximately 500 submissions.
This year, the theme for the competition was environmental
sustainability and Livingston’s Team Maia developed a system to
capture and remove physical pollution from waterways. The five
members of the team: Livingston High School students Omar Barakat, Pranit Dutta, Satish Natarajan, Rohat Chari and Prathik Lolla, presented their project to a panel at MIT.
Business teacher, Merle Gehman, who advises the club, was quite
impressed with his students. “It (the club) requires an incredible amount of persistence and a willingness to accept failure,” he said.
In Launch Club, student teams develop and pilot a new business idea
using MIT’s entrepreneurship approach. Students spend seven months following MIT’s entrepreneurship program to develop their businesses.
They conduct field research and create and test a prototype of their
product with consumers. Launch Club is led by directors, which are students Catherine Yu, Amy Liu, Tim Shaw, Eashan Bagia, Aaron Samuel and Mekha Thottananiyil.
The directors are veterans of past teams, and teach MIT’s
entrepreneurship process to the new teams. The competition ended in Boston for Global Demo Day on April 28, where teams from around the world presented to judges and business
Team Maia is eligible for a $5,000 grant to pursue their idea. The team was also referred to a non-profit organization that is interested in supporting water pollution initiatives.
Barakat, who immigrated to America from Egypt two years ago, is a
senior in the high school and will be attending Penn State University in the fall. After getting used to his new school and community, he joinedthe club because of his passion for entrepreneurship. “I’ve always had an in interest in entrepreneurship because my father
owns his own business,” he said.
His father, Sherif, owned a construction company in Egypt and when
they moved here, started one as well. Barakat explained his goal was to get experience with Launch Club, but never did he imagine his team and idea would gain such recognition. He noted that this was an opportunity to learn firsthand what being an entrepreneur was like.
Growing up near the Nile River in Egypt, which is heavily polluted, he
felt compelled to address this issue.
“I thought that it was very important to tackle because it’s a very real
problem,” he said. According to Barakat, it took a while for the team to get on the same page in regards to designing the product. The kids created a water strider, which works like a fishnet attached to a boat and it would essentially scoop up trash as the boat travels.
Not only did it go through several changes prior to being complete, but it also did not receive good feedback at Regional Demo Day in New York. “We felt very defeated,” he said. “We felt our idea was a rocky one.”
But, suddenly in late April Barakat got an email at midnight notifying
him the team was selected as a finalist. After spending the weekend at MIT and meeting with some of the brightest minds in the world, the teens plan to pursue their project as a business. They will either apply for a second year program at MIT Launch X or work with a business incubator.
“The biggest thing I’ve gained from it is the sense of self confidence,”
he commented. “To find success on the very first try that’s something I didn’t anticipate.”
One of his teammates, Dutta, a junior, grew up in India where water
pollution is a big issue. Like Barakat, he also moved to America a
couple of years ago and this was his first year doing the club.
He didn’t know much about the club at first, but is glad he joined.
During the past year he learned how a business operates, how to look for clients and how to tailor products to them.
“We worked pretty hard and along the way learned a lot of things,” he
Dutta explained that his family here and abroad was happy that not only was he chosen to compete at MIT, but that his business idea was
something that could benefit his country back home.
The team is currently in contact with a few non-governmental
organizations in India about the product.
Gehman, who spent 30 years at JP Morgan, but the past five at LHS,
feels the club has had a positive impact on the students. In fact, one of
the first Launch participants is starting a $200 million venture fund for college entrepreneurs.
“It’s really nice to see some students take in what they learn,” he said.