INNOVATION IN ACTION: 2020 Final Showcase

2020 finalists pitch their innovative approaches to the world’s
biggest challenges in a virtual showcase.

On the morning of a typical Innovation in Action Final Showcase, you can find a familiar scene: teams of students nervously checking their microphones and rehearsing their pitches; judges from all over the country readying their score sheets; and staff members double-checking each detail to make sure every team has the chance to showcase five months of hard work.

For the past six years, this was a well-rehearsed scene for the team at Innovation in Action, a campus-wide competition giving groups the opportunity, the tools, the people, and the room to take on the world’s biggest challenges.

This year, the scene on Monday, March 16 was a little different. “We are constantly teaching the students we work with to iterate and be ready to adapt to feedback and unexpected circumstances,” said Ann Verhey-Henke, founder of Innovation in Action and Strategic Director for the Center for Socially Engaged Design. “This year, it felt like it was up to us to take our own advice and adapt to the world around us.” 

As COVID-19 quickly shut down one campus activity after the next, many groups found themselves struggling to find virtual alternatives to their typical in-person programming. While the state-wide stay-at-home order didn’t go into effect until March 23, the Innovation in Action team was looking ahead in early March to determine how to move forward with what is typically a celebratory in-person event.

But the planning and adapting paid off: each team pitched virtually to a panel of judges that did join from all over the country. While the format may have been different, teams had the chance to showcase their many months of hard work, take questions from judges, and receive feedback on their pitches and innovations. 

When all the teams had pitched and score sheets were tallied, everyone joined a Zoom announcement call to hear the winners. “Though we certainly missed the excitement of the live studio audience,” said Verhey-Henke, “I’m so glad we were able to pull together a meaningful event under these circumstances that could celebrate the hard work of these students.” 



Screenshot of the moment Heard was announced the winning team of Innovation in Action 2019-2020.

First Place, Heard — $10,000

Upper Left: Julia Dinoto – School of Information, Upper Right: Anne Fitzpatrick – College of LSA, Lower Left: Elisabeth Fellowes – School of Information, Lower Right: Anthony Dang – School of Public Health

The first place winner was Heard, who built an on-demand peer-to-peer support network for people experiencing flare-ups of chronic illnesses. With team members from Public Health, Information, and LSA, they credit their interdisciplinary process as a major factor in their win.  

“I wanted to do Innovation in Action a second time because it complimented my work,” says Julia Dinoto, member of team Heard. “The first time I participated I was looking for ways to flex my muscles outside of the classroom. I felt like doing IiA was the perfect way to tie all the methods together.” 


Second Place, ReproActive — $7,500

Upper Left: Ryan Hampton – Ross School of Business, Rackham Graduate Studies; Upper Right: Viggy Hampton – Public Health (Emory University); Lower Left: Snehal Yarlagadda – School of Information; Lower Right: Shelbi Lisecki – School of Art & Design, School of Public Health

ReproActive created a subscription box as an educational starter kit that provides age-appropriate materials for parents to have conversations about sexual health with their children, with the belief that all children deserve access to accurate reproductive health information.


Third Place, Contractor Connect — $5,000

Upper Left: Emma Watters – School of Public Health, Upper Right: Siyin Zheng – School of Information, Lower Left: Nick Najor – Ford School of Public Policy, Lower Right: Jamison Koeman – School of Public Health

Contractor Connect developed a web application to make it easier for Detroit-based contractors to find & bid on local projects by streamlining paperwork & removing complexity in the process. 


Poverty Solutions Best Innovation in Economic Mobility Award, Contractor Connect — $2,500

Contractor Connect was also the winner of a new $2500 award this year, “Best Innovation in Economic Mobility,” sponsored by our partners at U-M’s Poverty Solutions

“One of the things I value about the Innovation in Action process is that it’s not prescriptive,” says Verhey-Henke. “Students start by identifying a problem in the world that they want to address, and you carve away at the edges slowly to start learning things about the symptoms, yes, but also the root causes and historical context for why this problem exists in the first place. Even though we were excited to have teams pitch in person this year, the entire IiA process reminds you to be flexible. And that there are many ways to solve a problem and get the work done. And ultimately, that’s why we’re here — to get this work done.” 

As the world changes around us and the future remains uncertain, we are grateful to the Innovation in Action teams for reminding us what it looks like to adapt and remain flexible in any situation. Congratulations to all teams who participated this year, we look forward to continuing to celebrate your work throughout the coming year.

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