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Student-led, AI-based innovation wins $25K in Ford Foundation competition
The Mango team (from left) Juan Espitia, Roberto Valdes, Giuliana Mesa and OIbin Gil

Student-led, AI-based innovation wins $25K in Ford Foundation competition

Mentored by StartUP FIU, a team of innovative engineering students developed an online marketplace for local farmers to connect with their customers.

June 25, 2024 at 11:24am

Miami is known the world over for its diverse cuisine, much of it founded on tropical fruits and vegetables in addition to unique preparations that positively tantalize the tastebuds.

As the farm-to-table movement continues to grow, however, South Florida’s restaurateurs and wholesalers have increasingly come up against barriers to providing fresh, locally sourced ingredients to customers in their community.

The student entrepreneurs behind “Mango” believe they have found an ideal solution with their  easy-to-use digital platform designed to streamline business processes and makes it easier for local farmers to connect with those looking for sustainably sourced produce.

“Our open online marketplace standardizes the way local farmers connect with vendors to ensure access to locally sourced ingredients becomes faster, more affordable and convenient than ever before,” said Olbin Gil, mechanical engineering junior at the College of Engineering and Computing and a member of the Mango team.

Olbin and fellow students Giuliana Mesa, Roberto Valdes and Juan Espitia started by exploring Miami’s restaurant and food service industry. They were fascinated to learn that although there is significant demand for more locally sourced, sustainable and organic food, it can be challenging for small farmers to successfully fill this need.

“We were surprised to discover that despite their physical proximity, there was a significant logistical disconnect between local farmers and their customers,” said Olbin. “This real-life problem inspired us to create Mango, making it easier for small local farmers to connect with their customers.”  

Mango leverages artificial intelligence and data analytics to streamline order management. It also provides targeted growth strategies for small local farmers so they can better capitalize on economic opportunities.

Only 1.5% of food is sourced locally in the United States, despite the potential for 90% of Americans to consume food grown within 100 miles of their homes. (source: USDA)

Looking to share their idea and gain additional funding, the Mango team entered the Ford Motor Company’s Tech for Social Impact Accelerator at the encouragement of the FIU Foundation. Hosted by the Henry Ford Learning Institute, the competition invited college students from across the United States to address a pressing community challenge. The Mango team competed against 10 other university teams to win the top prize of $25,000. The award came in the category of "social mobility" in recognition of Mango's making accessible reliable, affordable goods to potentially all people and alleviating obstacles for small farmers.

It is meant to bridge the communication gap between veterans, school advisors, success coaches and their peers. The group incuded Michael Berenguer, Josue Arreaga, Valerie Benedit and Zubayer Ahmed Sadid and was advised by faculty member Stephanie Lunn.

“By participating in pitch competitions, students experience ‘investigation in action’ and gain a deeper understanding of the systems and complexities involved in real-world problems,” said Kiesha Moodie, director of social innovation at StartUP FIU, the university’s dedicated innovation hub. Moodie provided mentorship to the Mango team while preparing them for the Ford Motor Company’s Tech for Social Impact Accelerator. “Our role at StartUP FIU is to encourage students and faculty to think critically and creatively to solve some of our world’s toughest problems. We harness valuable insights to pinpoint opportunities where technology and artificial intelligence can be applied innovatively to address these issues.”

Now that they have won the Ford competition, the Mango team plans to participate in the Hult Prize competition. The global social innovation challenge held in Boston encourages young people to solve the world’s most pressing issues – poverty, climate change, income inequality and others – using the principles of social entrepreneurship. The grand prize is $1 million.

Excited to continue developing their innovative platform, the Mango team credits StartUP FIU with believing in their idea and providing them with the guidance needed to share their idea with the entrepreneurial community.

“We could not have come this far without the unwavering support we received from StartUP FIU,” said Olbin. “Not only did we get the chance to pitch in front of a globally recognized company, but we learned how to harness creative thinking to tackle critical social problems.”