The 2009 Imagine Cup student technology design competition wrapped up in Cairo, Egypt, last week. Organized by Microsoft, the event brought together student software programmers, embedded hardware developers, filmmakers, photographers, game developers and designers from across the globe.
Microsoft won't say how much it shelled out for the five-day shindig, but with cash prizes totaling $255,000 and travel and accommodation costs for 444 competitors, plus a couple of hundred staff and support professionals and about 70 assorted hangers-on (or journalists, as we prefer to call ourselves), the total bill would likely make the eyes water.
In these frugal times, does investing in such events make economic sense? Microsoft clearly thinks it does.
The theme of this year's competition, borrowing a page from the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, was "Imagine a world where technology helps solve the world's toughest problems." More than 300,000 students from over 100 countries participated in local, regional and online competitions in software design, embedded development, game development, IT, robotics and algorithms, mashups, photography, short film production and design.
For the embedded section, Microsoft Embedded bore the added cost of hardware. Of the 300 teams that registered, 150 received a nonreturnable ICOP Technology eBox-4300 development kit, including software, that retails for $270.
Joe Wilson, senior director for education at Microsoft, was adamant that the competition is all about the students and not about any concrete payback for the company. There is no plan to incorporate the students' ideas into Microsoft products; indeed, students retain all rights to any intellectual property they produce, and in some instances they can obtain help on marketing and good business practices. There is no hiring program linked to the Imagine Cup, though Wilson noted that success in the competition looks great on a resume.
Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, was a bit less coy, acknowledging that the company gains exposure for its technologies as the students work with them during the competition.
Microsoft's meticulous planning for the event was evident. The organizers appeared to be ready for all contingencies, from dealing with cases of H1N1 flu to coping with a flight cancellation that meant a 24-hour delay for a team of students from Mexico (who rode with me on the 3 a.m. shuttle bus from the airport).