Tech, media leaders advise and inspire student entrepreneurs

“Finding overlooked connections is a very powerful concept. But you need to visualize it better and translate how your app fits into the everyday tasks of a typical reporter.” That’s just a slice of the advice Peter Mortensen gave Team MindFlow, developers of Informator, during a recent Bay Area pitch session at Matter, an accelerator for media startups.

Mortensen directs Matter’s San Francisco office. Informator is the brain child of University of Missouri sophomores Humera Lodhi, Chris Mitchell and Evan Teters, the winners of the 2017 student developer competition sponsored by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. Their mobile search tool uses artificial intelligence to find hidden relationships within a database of news sources. Journalists can use it to come up with more informative stories.

The Matter meeting was Mitchell’s favorite part of the team’s grand prize trip to northern California. “We were able to see the process that successful startups have undergone in order to turn their initial ideas into profitable businesses,” said Mitchell. One example of a successful startup: Hearken, the public-powered journalism service that, with assistance from Matter, has grown from a handful of clients to more than 80, including NPR and the BBC.

Earlier in the day, the Informator team sat in on the daily story meeting at the San Francisco Chronicle and spoke with Chronicle tech culture reporter Marissa Lang. She shared tips on how to gain insights into the often-secretive Silicon Valley business community.

While in the city, the students also visited the BuzzFeed Open Lab, an experimental unit inside BuzzFeed’s San Francisco office. The Open Lab’s second group of fellows is currently exploring new ideas related to storytelling.

The lab’s director, Amanda Hickman, said an important element for fostering innovation is having the tools and resources in place to build rough prototypes quickly. “It also helps to give people time, space and freedom to focus on exploration without distraction and without necessarily expecting a particular outcome or benefit.”

The student team took home another lesson from their BuzzFeed visit: Good ideas aren’t always sustainable. The Open Lab, an experimental project itself, will shut down later this year.

Humera Lodhi, Chris Mitchell and Evan Teters of Team MindFlow exchange ideas with Google engineers Peng Zhuang and Dan Wang June 1, in Mountain View, California.
Humera Lodhi, Chris Mitchell and Evan Teters of Team MindFlow exchange ideas with Google engineers Peng Zhuang and Dan Wang June 1, in Mountain View, California.

The 2017 RJI Student Competition focused on mobile applications of artificial intelligence to support journalism and citizens who rely on it. AI was also a principal focus of the team’s stops in Silicon Valley.

At Google, they met with Peng Zhuang, a tech lead manager for AdWords, and software engineer Dan Wang.  The pair earned their doctorate degrees in computer science at MU and won the second RJI contest in 2009. They shared the importance of machine learning to Google’s continued dominance in online advertising.

The students most intriguing conversation may have been with Rish Mehta, director of engineering at Banjo.  The Redwood City, California, technology company is known for its ability to monitor global events in real time by geographically tagging social media feeds. News organizations use Banjo to stay on top of breaking stories. But Mehta explained the company now accesses many more public data sources and identifies exponentially more events of interest to its clients. Machine learning powers the algorithms that make it possible to process and analyze all that information without hiring more human curators.

RJI lead developer Shawn Moore says Mehta’s briefing was particularly helpful. “As a software engineer myself, Banjo was specifically insightful in the way they approached large, seemingly insurmountable problems. Rish gave amazing advice to the students on breaking such problems into smaller chunks.”

For student winners Teters, Mitchell and Lodhi, this was their first trip to the Bay Area. For Ebony Reed, it was her first visit as the new director of innovation and the Futures Lab at RJI.

“While the winners were able to connect their studies to real-time industry developments, we were able to gain insights into potential themes for the upcoming 2018 competition,” she says.


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