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UT Austin Takes First Place at Battle of the Brains

Product Prodigy students claim $50K for first-place finish at HSI Battle of the Brains competition
Ruben Cantu with the Product Prodigy team at the Battle of the Brains competition.
Ruben Cantu with the Product Prodigy team at the Battle of the Brains competition.

Eight students participating in the DDCE’s Product Prodigy Institute recently took first place at KPMG’s annual Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Battle of the Brains Competition, beating out 13 other universities and earning a $50,000 grand prize.

With so many talented competitors from top schools across the nation, Product Prodigy Leader Rubén Cantú says the team didn’t assume they’d come out on top. Yet their hard work and experience in the Product Prodigy Institute truly paid off.

“The team said that the reason they were able to win was because of the team development training that we do the very first semester of the program, which is a testament to why we were able to be resilient and rebound so quickly,” says Cantú, executive director of Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which houses the Product Prodigy Institute.

This intense six-day event, held last September at the Home Depot Tech Center, brought together students from HSIs across the country for a unique opportunity to network and learn from tech and business industry leaders. Finalists were challenged to a 24-hour pitch competition, in which they were tasked with finding a solution for problems facing the Hispanic community.

Within 24 hours, the Longhorns brainstormed ideas for a startup that focuses on improving health outcomes for Hispanic communities in the United States. With members from the Texas Rio Grande Valley, the Product Prodigy team decided to find a viable solution for the region’s lack of access to healthy foods, particularly convenient grocery stores with fresh produce.

“This area is predominately Hispanic, and we found that many residents have high rates of diabetes, which is a precursor to a lot of long-term chronic illnesses,” say Annie You, a senior majoring in management information systems/government/sociology. “So, we wanted to focus on this area in particular because some of us are from there and are passionate about helping the community.”

To bridge this gap, the students came up with a new venture called “Ama Tu Vida” (love your life), an accessible mobile grocery store bus with a geo-tracking app that caters to food desert neighborhoods. Taking this resource a step further, they included an app with healthy recipes for traditional meals.

“We also wanted to include an education component because we found that access to fresh food wasn’t the only issue,” You says. “People also need to know what ingredients they can substitute to make the foods they love healthier.”

After the long hours of brainstorming, the team presented their startup to a panel of judges representing major industries including Dell, Home Depot, eBay and more. During their pitch, two team members shared personal stories about their familial struggles with food insecurity, pointing out the significant impact their startup would make in the Texas borderlands.

For You—and her team of up-and-coming thought leaders, nonprofit leaders and entrepreneurs—the awards ceremony was a moment they will never forget.

“The word ‘excited’ just isn’t enough to describe how we all felt when we heard our team called out as the winner,” You says. “It was genuinely the coolest moment I’ve experienced in my life because it was so surreal and unexpected.”

After graduation, You looks forward to working in the tech industry or perhaps in education, where she could focus on equity. Wherever her career path may lead, she aspires to make a positive impact and contribute to the greater good.

“This potential impact of this project really resonated with me because we weren’t just focusing solely on the solution, but more so on the people we would be helping and really understanding their challenges as a community,” You says.

In addition to Product Prodigy’s annual Demo Day, this is the program’s second big startup competition. Looking toward the future, Cantú is excited to celebrate more victorious moments with his future cohorts of students who are fulfilling the University’s mission statement: What Starts Here Changes the World.

“Witnessing what we all can accomplish together I’m only more excited about the work that is to come, and the impact that we will have on many more young people,” Cantú says. “It’s almost poetic because, amidst the political challenges, we have continued to focus on our mission and prove that it is worthy and noble.”

More About the Product Prodigy Institute
Product Prodigy Institute is a two-year long program that takes students of various backgrounds through the process of learning the many facets of entrepreneurship with the goal of launching thier own companies and articulating their business plans at the culminating Demo Day event.

Reporting by Abbie Bard