Innovation, industry, and bright ideas

Inaugural Idea Fund program awards cash prizes to extracurricular student projects with support from AltaML.

Andrew Lyle - 5 May 2020

What do a Game Boy, a smoothie, and a high school math test all have in common?

It turns out they’re all ways that Faculty of Science undergraduate students are showcasing their innovative ideas—and they’re all winning projects of the Idea Fund.

The program, supported by a generous donation from local artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning company AltaML—co-founded by University of Alberta alumni Cory and Nicole Janssen—awarded cash prizes to extracurricular student projects as evaluated by a panel of judges from the Edmonton tech community. The initiative is helping to create tomorrow’s leaders in innovation, and is one of many ways that AltaML is supporting UAlberta as a key partner in strengthening AI commercialization capabilities and building the local AI industry and innovation ecosystem.

Eight teams of undergraduate students participated in the inaugural program over the fall semester, inviting them to take their ideas beyond research and coursework and to demonstrate progress on any science or technology project that excited them.

The evening of presentations began with a round of applause, recognizing the challenge of pursuing extracurricular projects in an already-busy schedule of assignments and exams. Regardless of who took home prizes, the teams had already gained something valuable: practicing their skills outside the classroom, and joining a community of like-minded innovators.

Judges at the Idea Fund presentations included:

  • Chad Langager, vice-president (product) at Alberta machine learning company AltaML
  • Chelsea Hong, undergraduate student and president of student group Ada's Team, which promotes diversity in computing science
  • Greg Coulombe, product development leader at Intuit

“Entering the Idea Fund was a great opportunity, because we were able to explore concepts and tools not taught in class,” said Daniel Chu, computing science student and participant in the Idea Fund. “Regardless of who won, we gained a lot of experience and skills from working on our projects and bouncing ideas off each other.”

The Idea Fund and the three cash prizes of $1000 for the winning teams were made possible by a generous donation from AltaML.

"It was amazing to see what these students could accomplish in such a short period of time, all while balancing their full course loads," said Chad Langager, vice-president (product) at AltaML and member of the judging panel.

"We strongly believe in the world-class talent at UAlberta, and programs like this help continue to foster that talent," said Langager. "The Idea Fund is a great platform for students to showcase the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. These values are core to AltaML, so it made providing support for the Student Innovation Centre and the Idea Fund a quick decision on our end."

AltaML is focused on building applications powered by applied machine learning to drive innovation in industry. The company has established the AltaML Professorship in Natural Language Processing in the Faculty of Science, which in September 2019 was awarded to AI expert Lili Mou. AltaML’s ongoing support demonstrates its commitment to supporting AI and student excellence on campus and beyond—and working with UAlberta to position Alberta as a world leader in AI.

Innovation outside the classroom

"The Idea Fund is a celebration of the inventive spirit of our students," said Chris Fetterly, inaugural director of the Student Innovation Centre, of the program. "It’s an event designed to encourage and reward students for taking those initial steps on their ideas. It’s about building momentum, stretching comfort zones, and growing our culture of student innovation."

It’s little surprise, then, that the winning projects took very different forms. Whether a concept for a business, or pure passion project playing with technology, progress on any extracurricular idea was fair game, as evaluated by a panel of judges from the Edmonton tech community.


Winning project GB2Twitter exemplifies the spirit of a hacker project. Computing science student Daniel Chu set out to put an old piece of hardware to a modern application: by enabling an original 1989 Nintendo Game Boy to send tweets via Twitter.

“The project required a fair amount of both hardware and software knowledge, some of which I’d never worked with,” says Chu. “Even if a concept was taught in a class it was useful to see it in a real context and problem solve on my own.”

“To students thinking of participating in the Idea Fund, I would say that this program is a great opportunity to run with whatever project you've been thinking about, no matter how out-there your idea may seem.”


Other projects took a more entrepreneurial focus, such as winning project EcoBlend, by team members Cameron Walters, Farouq Sadiq, Xin Xu, and Daniel Nguyen. 

“Ecoblend is our contribution to solving the growing problem of food waste,” says Sadiq. “It’s a service that captures produce waste—or naturally imperfect produce, as we like to call it.”

The team conceptualized a pop-up smoothie stand for supermarkets, helping sell fruits and veggies nearing their sale-by dates in a convenient—and tasty—format. “The Student Innovation Centre is a fantastic space with an even better community,” says Daniel Nguyen. “Participating in the Idea Fund exposed us to other brilliant minds within the university, helping us expand our network in many unique fields.”

Math Tutor

The third winning project took a different tack with its innovative thinking—helping encourage next-generation innovators and scientists. Team members Jacob Mellick, Gabriela Landberg, Michelle Wang, and Janukan Sivajeyan identified math as a subject that frequently proves a stumbling block for students in high school, and decided to tackle the problem with an automated tutor.

Drawing from a public bank of exam questions, the team’s prototype allowed students to generate a list of sample problems, input their work, and check to see if their answers were correct. The team also showed off plans to implement a study community, helping students help each other in their studies.

“Hearing feedback on our project gave us more resources to expand it going forward,” says Sivajeyan. “This included educators to read over our material and introduce it to high school students, professors to help us with technical components, and fellow student developers to help us design the application.”