February 3, 2016

Princeton Freshmen Advance to Finals Of World’s Largest Student Competition

A trio of Princeton University freshmen are in the running for the seventh annual Hult Prize, which could win them $1 million in start-up funding “to change the world,” as the organization’s website says.

Ricardo Diaz, Viktoria Zlatinova, and Evan Trauger are hoping that Ryde, a subscription-based transportation service, will make it through the regional finals of the student competition and start-up platform to advance to the next level. The Princeton students will travel to the regionals in Boston next month to pitch their idea and describe their business model.

Students from Rutgers University are also scheduled to compete. Additional regional finals are being held in San Francisco, Dubai, London, and Shanghai. The teams that win the regionals get a one-year membership into the Clinton Global Initiative, which is a partner in the program, and an opportunity to spend the summer at the Hult Prize Accelerator, an incubator for social enterprise.

The goal of the initiative is to launch the next generation of social entrepreneurs whose ventures are geared toward solving the planet’s most pressing challenges. The 2016 prize challenges entrepreneurs to create sustainable businesses that double the income of 10 million people living in crowded urban spaces.

Ryde would be accessible through a mobile application that allows customers to request a car ride whenever needed. The idea is to supplant car ownership, cutting down the number on the road. Unlike the existing ride service Uber, Ryde would have full-time employees who would be fully insured. And the venture’s eventual goal is to replace drivers with autonomous, self-driving cars.

“I got the idea after speaking with the vice president of General Motors,” said Mr. Diaz, a native of Venezuela and a student at the University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public International Affairs. “I was chatting with her and I asked what she thought the future of the automotive industry would be like,” he said. ‘She said this idea of ride-sharing was the future.”

Studies on car usage have revealed that people use their cars five or six percent of the time, Mr. Diaz continued. “Otherwise, they sit idle. Our business model is getting that efficiency up to 30 percent. So one single car would serve six people. It would help with reducing traffic congestion. And if you’re using a single car, with clean energy and sustainable resources, that helps with reducing the carbon footprint.”

Ryde customers would pay a monthly service fee that corresponds with their desired mileage plan. While such transportation services are having a negative effect on traditional taxi services in many areas, Mr. Diaz sees them as more efficient and cost effective. “Unfortunate as it is, it’s one of those survival-of-the-fittest things,” he said. “It’s that whole notion of adapt-or-die. We see this a lot, especially in the manufacturing industry. I like to use the analogy of elevators. When they first started out, they had an operator. Then the operator was replaced by a doorman who just pushed the buttons. Now, the people riding the elevator push the buttons themselves. It will take some time, but I see it as being sooner rather than later. We have a seven-year business model, which will start to incorporate self-driving cars by the end.”

Being selected as a regional finalist “is a huge honor,” said Mr. Diaz, who is Ryde’s chief executive officer. “During December I stayed up seven days and nights straight to write the business plan, and then met with some alumni to get advice.” Such high-pressure scheduling doesn’t faze Mr. Diaz, who is taking five courses this semester and is also an officer for Princeton’s Entrepreneurship Club, a writer for Business Today, a member of Princeton Latinos Y Amigos, Asian American Students Association, and Princeton Corporate Finance Club.

“I’m not good with free time,” he said. “Once I do something, I want to really get it done. My ideal day is being completely busy from the start of the day till I fall asleep at night. I’m on full financial aid here, and I decided once I came here I wanted to take full advantage of what’s offered.”

Previous winners of the Hult Prize have included a team from The Indian School of Business, whose “Doc-in-a-Box” was a diagnostic tool they designed to measure basic indicators like blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood lipids and create an electronic health record for the patient. President Bill Clinton will announce the winning team for 2016 at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in late September.