Buddy System – Two Undergrads Win Big at SXSW

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If you’re a tech startup with a winning idea, hold on to your hats: Things can move pretty fast. Just ask fourth-year electrical engineering major Ashutosh Priyadarshy or third-year Duylam Nguyen-Ngo, who is studying mechanical engineering. The two undergrads’ proposal to create a mobile app to improve campus safety (called WalkBack) earned them the chance to pitch the concept at the first round of the Student Startup Madness competition at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, this year—only a couple of days after they submitted it and just four days before the actual event. “SXSW was a mind-boggling experience,” said Nguyen-Ngo. And he wasn’t kidding. After receiving news of their successful proposal, they rushed back to campus from spring break to hone their pitch with the help of faculty adviser Letitia Green (who teaches a SEAS course on financing entrepreneurship) and submitted their final presentation materials just minutes before the deadline the night before the event.

From there, it was a mad dash to the airport in Baltimore, scrambling to find last-minute accommodations in a city swollen with more than 200,000 SXSW visiting conference goers, and then, by early the next morning, navigating the throngs in downtown Austin to give their 15-minute presentation to a five-member panel of technology and investing entrepreneurs. Not exactly ideal conditions.

“The most difficult part,” added Nguyen-Ngo, “was managing the energy level after traveling to six different cities in a span of 12 hours … and [having only] a few hours of sleep. Luckily, coffee helped with that.”

Despite their whiplash, the preparation paid off and Priyadarshy and Nguyen-Ngo impressed the panel enough to beat out four other teams and win the top prize—a package valued at more than $3,000, including entry into another tech conference, marketing support and introductions to tech investors, who are already lining up to help make the app a reality.

“The WalkBack app got the attention of the judges because it solved a growing problem on many college campuses,” said Sean Branagan, Student Startup Madness founder and director of Syracuse University’s Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship. Once launched, the app will enable friends to virtually walk each other home at night by letting them sync their smartphones and check each other’s status and location, while also providing quick access to emergency resources.

The focus on applying technological solutions to social problems is something that both students value about their SEAS experience and hope to continue in future collaborations. “WalkBack is only the beginning,” says Priyadarshy.

This article originally appeared in UVa Engineering Unbound.