The six-month long Purple Prize competition grew out of imagining what an aloha ‘āina hackathon would look like. - Photo: Courtesy Purple Maia

Startup competition unites tech innovation, culture, and environment

The idea for the Purple Prize came about after Kelsey Amos read an article on “Zen Hack” events happening in Japan, two-day sprints where designers and engineers get together in sacred temples to build applications and platforms centered around themes.

As co-founder of Purple Maiʻa Foundation, a local nonprofit that teaches kids in underserved schools about coding and computer science, Amos loved the idea of creating a distinct culture around the mixing of IT and traditional Hawaiian practices. She and founding partners Donovan Kealoha and Olin Lagon got together with their board members Kamuela Enos and Forest Frizzell to talk about the disconnect between the local tech community, cultural practitioners, nonprofits and environmentalists. They imagined, what would an “aloha ʻāina hackathon” look like? As they were teaching the youth to code, it made perfect sense that they should invest in building the kind of landscape that would support aspiring startups.

“We want to be clearing the way ahead of these kids, and start cultivating the kind of tech community here that we want to see,” says Amos.

In 2016, Purple Maiʻa hosted its first Purple Prize, a six-month-long competition where teams presented ideas rooted in Hawaiian values with the goal of developing innovations that are not only viable in the sense of creating a marketable product, but also in terms of serving the people of Hawaiʻi broadly. The event drew widespread community support and winners shared $80,000 in prizes – funded by donations from Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiʻi Community Foundation, Datahouse and Amazon Web Services – to take their ideas to the next level.

This year’s event, the “Waiwai Challenge,” asked teams to create efficiencies that address the conservation, protection and management of local water resources. “The word ‘waiwai’ reflects the insight that freshwater is the basis of all life and any thriving society,” says Amos. “Our stewardship of this resource is a key priority for the future, and technology should play a role in it.”

One competitor, Team Mai Tai’d, tackled the problem of an undersampled coastal marine environment by building a low-cost tide gauge that measures water levels in real time and sends the data to the web or iPhone app using radio frequency. Though oceanography professor Brian Glazer had been exploring the concept from an academic angle for years, his crew worked closely with Paepae o Heʻeia and team mentor Robin Campaniano from Blue Startups to grow the idea from an entrepreneurship angle.

“I wanted to enable a broader spatial understanding of the coast, so places like the fishpond could access measureents that they could normally not afford,” says Glazer. “That’s where the beautiful marriage lies between research interests and applied science… The Purple Prize pushed me outside of my comfort zone to consider the end user and create a deeper impact.”

At the event kickoff in March at Ka Papa Loʻi ʻo Kānewai and Hālau ʻĪnana, participants learned about traditional resource management systems and their relevance today. With 12 teams competing – double last year’s number – the October finale at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu invited the public to watch finalists pitch their ideas to a panel of thought leaders. Winners were chosen in two categories – In-Flight and Startup – based on four criteria: bold and audacious, creative, impactful to many and pono.

Mālama Loko Iʻa took first place in In-Flight with its tablet interface that functions offline, allowing community members to collect an array of fishpond data for community-based ecosystem management. Iʻa Kilo Practices for the Contemporary Kiaʻi Loko took home the Startup win with a tool to document and quantify fish at mākāhā (sluice gates) over tidal, lunar and seasonal cycles using underwater cameras and machine learning for better management and community engagement.

Nohealani Hirahira’s team took second place in Startup for Native Stories, a platform created around place-based stories and cultural practice content to perpetuate indigenous wisdom. “This is my first experience in this type of competition,” she says. “The experience was invaluable… from the advice on pitching and our business ideas to the network that we developed.”

The aim for Purple Prize in the next few years is to reach a wider range of participants, and engage more undergraduate college students. “Beyond any sort of technological fix, I think we’re building a new network of collaborators and creating the social systems necessary to solve real- world problems,” says Amos. “At its core, the Purple Prize tells people we’re here to invest in you. We want to see you succeed, we want to share your ideas and run with them.”

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