More than two dozen students are stretching their imagination and building entrepreneurial skills in the first-ever Mobile App Challenge  at UC Merced.
Representing each of the university’s three schools, 28 students in seven teams are developing innovative and custom “apps,” or applications, for wireless devices. Most teams are tackling students’ real-life problems, such as tracking bus schedules or getting an early crack at classes during registration.
“Every single app is personal to them,” said Rani Yadav-Ranjan, one of the founders of the challenge and the cofounder, chairman and CEO of Gray Cloud Technology, a company that uses proprietary data-mining and analytics technology to identify and target customers.
The idea for the competition grew out of a meeting last year between Yadav-Ranjan — a member of UC Merced’s Foundation Board of Trustees — and university officials including Brian O’Bruba, director of Career Services . Yadav-Ranjan was looking for an intern for her company, but the discussion evolved into finding a way for students to cultivate new skills and showcase their creativity.
“That’s where great innovation comes from — the individual,” Yadav-Ranjan said.
O’Bruba said students are learning to work in teams, develop an idea and pitch a new product, for example. All of those experiences should give them a competitive advantage in today’s job market.
“Employers say they want employees who can hit the ground running,” O'Bruba said.
Students registered for the competition last fall and have been working on projects since then. Yadav-Ranjan meets regularly — in person and via Skype — with teams and also developed the Conversations with Entrepreneurs speaker series , a forum for guest speakers from the entrepreneurship arena to share their experiences with students and the UC Merced community. John de Lancie, actor, writer and founder of nonprofit Voice from Within, will speak at 7:30 p.m. on April 26 in COB 120.
A panel of judges will award the grand prize — a $2,500 scholarship — based on the quality of the app, innovation and a professional pitch to the panel. UC Merced students vote in April to award four other prizes that include the most original app and the app with the best functional design.
Organizers plan to continue and expand the challenge in the coming years.
While other universities sponsor similar contests, UC Merced’s competition is unique because it only involves undergraduate students. Graduate students were eligible, but none signed up for the current challenge.
Other universities also define the problem for students to solve.
“At UC Merced, we’ve allowed them to come up with their own problem,” O'Bruba said.
For example, one three-member team is taking on bus routes and schedules. Senior Siddharth Zaveri, 21, said he and fellow students Roseller Velicaria and Sam Burba wanted to make the system more accessible.
Beyond listing bus schedules, the app would allow students to enter a destination and find the most convenient bus based on their current location. The application could easily translate to other college campuses, he said.
“We not only want to make the current bus users’ lives easier, but also encourage more students to take the bus system instead of driving everywhere,” said Zaveri, a computer science and engineering major from Claremont.
Zaveri said the team ultimately hopes to expand the app to provide opening and closing times of on-campus locations and to pinpoint student hot spots in town.
Zaveri, who plans to pursue an MBA, said he didn’t enter the competition for the prize money —he wanted the chance to work with his friends and to benefit from the experience.
“Working with entrepreneurs face-to-face and getting my hands in the Android market seemed like a great thing to put on a resume or mention in an interview,” Zaveri said.