Carnegie Mellon students win Ford College Community Challenge

Credit: Ikjong Choi/ Credit: Ikjong Choi/

The winner of the Ford College Community Challenge (Ford C3) mobility-themed competition was The Aquaponics Project, a startup company which focuses on urban agriculture by raising aquatic animal and plants in a single, small environment. The company received $10,000 and a Ford Transit Connect passenger van to transport its portable aquaponics facility for winning the challenge. The project team includes Carnegie Mellon University students Alexis Hoane, a sophomore chemistry major, and Sasha Cohen Ioannides, a sophomore in the College of Engineering. The team also consists of students from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan.

The goal of The Aquaponics Project is to provide an innovative solution to food production and waste and soil remediation. The startup company was established in 2016 when it created its first aquaponics farm, which produced 50 pounds of basil and 80 tilapia last year.

“The vehicle will improve our aquaponics startup, allowing us to start integrating anaerobic digestion and improve food rescue mobilization in Pittsburgh. This will create a 21st-century food system that we hope other urban areas can model,” said Cohen Ioannides, director of design and maintenance for The Aquaponics Project.

The company previously pitched an idea for an anaerobic digestive system at the 2017 Ford C3 and won $25,000. The system involved a series of biological processes in which microorganisms break down food waste in the absence of oxygen. The end product is biofertilizer and biogas, which is used for energy and heat.

The Aquaponics Project partners with various organizations around the city including Repair the World, The Door Campaign, and 412 Food Rescue, co-founded by Carnegie Mellon alumna Leah Lizarondo, a 2003 graduate of the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. 412 Food Rescue provides compost for the startup’s anaerobic digestive system.

“My biggest passion is creating accessibility to food,” said Ioannides. “The Aquaponics Project allows me to collaborate with other students on and off campus, get out and do the things I’m passionate about and get involved with the community.”

The signature Ford Mobility Challenge celebrated the ten-year anniversary of the Ford C3 with a special mobility-themed competition, “Making Lives Better by Changing the Way People Move.” Three of the ten original winning teams were invited to Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, including The Aquaponics Project, to pitch their solutions to a panel of Ford executives for the chance to win the passenger van and additional monetary prizes.

“The future of C3 will broaden our goal to help students create meaningful, sustainable social enterprises to drive change,” said Mike Schmidt, director of education and global community development for Ford Motor Company Fund, in a press release on the challenge. “Our goal is to create a movement, not a program, that allows students to be a powerful force for good in this world and to help make people’s lives better across the globe.”

Home Inc.Ubator, led by Carnegie Mellon architecture major Sophie Nahrmann, was an additional 2017 C3 winning team that received $25,000 for its portable residential housing module prototype, which used virtual reality technology which enables residents to have input on the design of their affordable housing. According to a press release on the challenge, the purpose of the project is to “empower residents to develop affordable housing, foster a more inclusive path to homeownership, contribute to social mobility, provide education/training opportunities, and support community-based entrepreneurship.”

In second place came the Olin College of Engineering, where students developed Coahoma Mobile Education, a project which allowed rural youth in Coahoma County, Mississippi to explore topics in the arts, technology, and entrepreneurship. The students will work with the youth to build electric guitars, teaching them electrically, carpentry, and 3D-modeling skills in a mobile space.

Michigan Tech University landed third place. The students built a user-friendly medical transportation management system to allow their partner organization, Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, to maximize their free door-to-door medical transportation service for the elderly.

“Ford C3 has been a tremendously successful program in that it has completely changed our mindset on how we engage with college students,” said Schmidt. “Through C3, we recognized that students can be a huge force for good and that if we give them the right support, they can change in the world. And we are doing that, now, on a global scale.”