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10/30/2007 07:00:00

Team to Compete in Project Enterprise Ideas Contest on PBS

PASADENA, Calif.--It all started last fall, in a classroom at Caltech. A team of students in Visiting Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ken Pickar's course, Product Design for the Developing World, decided to create wheelchairs for people in developing countries that could tackle the rugged terrain. With two bicycles and three creative brains contributing, the project took off.

"There is a lot of creativity in this class," says Pickar. "But, this particular group displayed an immense amount of ingenuity both on the engineering and business sides."

Rudy Roy, Ben Sexson and Dan Oliver, who have all since graduated, came up with the idea for the non-profit organization Intelligent Mobility International (IMI), which is now among four finalists for a contest on "NOW," a PBS series. The Project Enterprise Contest will showcase a team that is using business tools to tackle a social problem.

IMI is looking to help the 20 million people with disabilities in developing countries regain mobility. Currently, only 1 percent of those disabled people own their own wheelchairs, and those chairs tend to be ill-suited for the rough terrain that disabled people must cross in rural areas.

According to Roy, Guatemala was the best place to start their work.

"We had done some research there and built a small network. We could have tried out the project in Mexico, which is much closer, but we thought it would be best to try it first in a smaller country."

Guatemala, with a population of about 12 million, is the focus of Transitions, another nonprofit organization that works with the disabled community in that country. Transitions will help IMI determine who needs the wheelchairs most.

Sponsorships for the wheelchairs will sell for $300 in the U.S. Disabled Guatemalans will be able to contribute a small amount towards the chairs as well

Roy says the team is also trying to encourage other college students to get involved in global philanthropic causes.

"The world is becoming a smaller place with the social networking revolution, and we can now use Facebook and the Internet to connect people around the world to tackle these problems. If young people in our country knew what they could do to help, they would get involved in these issues-it's the only way we can create a more sustainable world."

Thomas Oliver, a junior at Caltech, says the project helped him realize that it is possible to start a business from scratch. He has found that working for IMI is completely different from the other jobs he has had on campus.

"It's a tiny, tiny business," says Oliver. "So, everything you do helps push it a little further."

NOW is offering to chronicle up-and-coming social entrepreneurs as they work to get a project off the ground. The four finalists were chosen by judges, but the winning team will be chosen by the public through a voting system that can be found online at http://www.pbs.org/now/enterprisingideas/poll.html. The polls close October 31, and a final team will be announced November 2.

Written by Jacqueline Scahill