Social entrepreneurs come together at Acara Challenge

The challenge included closed demonstrations and presentations, a public reception and pitch sessions

By Brian Martucci
Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Thursday night was a big one for University of Minnesota-affiliated social entrepreneurs. More than a dozen early-stage companies and concepts came together at Acara Challenge 2016 to celebrate the work they’d done during the previous year (and, for some, long before). Two won big: Pure Paani, a hand-powered water purification device manufacturer, took home the International Division prize; Siobhan Powers, a high-end Native American fashion line tasked with “end[ing] cultural appropriation,” got the Domestic Division prize.

The Acara Challenge is a program of Acara, an “impact venture” initiative housed in the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Challenge day featured hours of closed demonstrations and presentations, followed by a public reception, pitch session and award announcement. At the pitch session, each group got two minutes to present their concept to a receptive audience. Some were fascinating:

Centre de la Recherche Internationale Pour la Basaa is creating a “language reclamation space that builds community through storytelling” and spearheads initiatives to preserve the heritage of the Basaa, an important minority culture in the African nation of Cameroon.

MobiLite produces a “light and energy” system for mobile phones, targeting low-income urban Indians who lack reliable access to the electric grid.

SMS Maama is a text messaging service for pregnant Ugandan women who lack reliable Internet access and aren’t well served by the country’s medical system.

Metro Meals is a smartphone app that connects low-income users who can’t always afford to cook healthy meals with people willing to cook for them (and earn side income in the process).

Let’s Grow is a low-cost, low-maintenance hydroponic gardening system that helps busy urbanites grow vegetables for home cooking or snacking.

Minnesota Freedom Fund pays bail for low-income individuals charged with crimes and reconnects them with their families, if possible, upon release — so that “no one is stuck in jail for the crime of being poor.”

If past results are any judge, an Acara Challenge win is a big deal. Last year’s Domestic winner, Ova Woman, went on to win $31,000 in the 2015 MN Cup. And 2014’s Domestic winner, Mighty Axe Hops, is expanding its cold-weather hops-growing operation on North Metro farmland, thanks to insatiable demand from local brewers. (We checked in with Mighty Axe in our October 2015 issue.)

What’s in store for this year’s winners? Check back this time next year.