Ryan Chiao, Photo Editor

This year, funding from the New Haven Civic Innovation Prize will go towards installing solar-powered lights in Newhallville, supporting local asylum seekers and providing area entrepreneurs with business support. 

On April 29, three ventures won funding through the prize, which is awarded annually to the best student or community-led venture focused on benefitting the Elm City. The event is managed by Dwight Hall, which invited four teams from a pool of thirteen proposals to pitch their venture to a panel of judges. The judges chose to split the $10,000 prize between two ventures. Seven thousand dollars will go to Project Lighten Up, which aims to improve street lights and install exterior house lights in New Haven neighborhoods. Three thousand dollars was awarded to LawText, an AI-powered platform designed to support immigration attorneys and asylum seekers. Collab, which provides New Haven entrepreneurs with business support and advice, was awarded $500 for winning the audience vote. 

According to team member Stephen Cremin-Endes, Project Lighten Up’s prize money will go toward installing solar-powered, motion sensing lights at 56 homes in Newhallville. The team’s original pitch aimed to install lights at 80 homes, but they had to reduce that number when their prize money was split with LawText. Installing the lighting costs $125 per house. 

“Our project is very clearly grounded in the community and we tried very hard to emphasise that in the presentation,” said Project Lighten Up team member Joseph Bennett ‘24 in an interview with the News. “It helped that our team is built of community leaders who have rapport doing impressive and long lasting work with the community.”

The community leaders involved in Project Lighten Up include New Haven Police Department Lieutenant and Newhallville District Manager Manmeet Colon, who spoke at the pitch event. Colon said by engaging with people in the Newhallville community, ventures can better understand their needs and how to address gun violence in the neighborhood. 

According to Colon, one of the largest safety concerns in the Newhallville community is the lack of lighting. Because of this, local Neighborhood Housing Services set up Project Lighten Up in 2012. Since then, they have helped install more than 2000 LED lights, 60 lamp posts and 20 motion sensor lights in the neighborhood. 

The New Haven Civic Innovation prize is part of a larger annual event called “Startup Yale”, which invites student innovators and entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas for funding. Startup Yale, which the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale has hosted for five years, ran from April 29 to May 1. A total of $125,000 was awarded to various tech, health, sustainability and equality ventures not solely focused on the Elm City.

This year, management of the NHCI prize was transferred from Tsai CITY to Dwight Hall. According to Johnny Scafidi, Dwight Hall’s director of community outreach and engagement, this prompted a reconsideration of the prize’s eligibility requirements — this year was the first time that participants did not need to be Yale-affiliated in order to apply.

“We believe that innovation comes from every part of our city, so the New Haven Civic

Innovation Prize is perfectly suited for broader participation beyond Yale-based ventures,” said Scafidi. “We believe that the pool of applicants reflects the diversity of our New Haven community and we are seeing more interest from POC-led, community-based teams.”

Scafidi said that the key idea behind the NHCI Prize is that the community’s vision and goals should guide social innovation ventures. Five judges were chosen for their experience advancing social change in New Haven — including Junta for Progressive Action Executive Director Bruni Pizarro ’19, Yale President’s Public Service Fellow Daud Shad ’21 and Genevive Walker, CEO of the Connecticut Center for Arts in Technology. 

After each pitch, judges were invited to quiz participants on their strategy and point out their concerns. After LawText’s pitch, judge Arthur Thomas, director of entrepreneurial initiatives and inclusive economic opportunity at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, questioned the team’s funding strategy. 

“How are you funding this?” asked Thomas. “If you’re going to make this sustainable for those populations to get this technology, is there a monetization component to this plan?”

One of LawText’s presenters, Bridget Algee-Hewitt, responded with an explanation of how LawText will be an open-sourced, community-driven project. After a prototype of the program is produced, it will be released to the public so that NGOs and researchers can add to it.

Algee-Hewitt works closely with immigrant communities as a research scientist and forensic anthropologist at Stanford. She is developing LawText alongside Alice Yiqian Wang LAW ’23, a PhD candidate at YLS. The project’s goal is to address implicit bias and inefficiency in immigration courts by leveraging AI technologies. 

During her pitch, Algee-Hewitt said that LawText filters through large amounts of legal information to study the words, patterns and arguments that are used in the courtroom. This allows lawyers to see the word patterns that best convey an argument and preempt questions and opposing arguments.

For immigrant communities in particular, Yiqian Wang said that LawText will reduce workloads so that immigration lawyers and NGOs are better able to respond to legal challenges. As the greater New Haven area includes a substantial refugee population, Wang said LawText would help reduce the backlog of cases in Hartford’s immigration courts especially.

“New Haven has a thriving legal and immigrant serving community that we believe can benefit substantially from LawText,” said Wang. “LawText can also help build bridges between student [legal] clinics and nonprofits as they serve simultaneously for immigrant and refugee communities.”

Collab, a venture which aims to provide entrepreneurs with business support using a person-centered approach, won a $500 prize for receiving the most audience votes. A Zoom poll was conducted after the pitches. Scafidi announced that the audience vote winner would not include either of the ventures awarded funding through the main prize.

Caroline Tanbee Smith, a co-director of Collab, reflected on the value of mentorship sessions provided in the leadup to the pitch in an interview with the News. All four teams were each given a coaching session with a professional communications coach.

“We were able to run through our pitch and receive advice from an objective standpoint,” said Smith. “I’ve really admired the prize for how many resources it has provided its applicants.”

Scafidi said that Dwight Hall will continue to work with all applicants — not just finalists — as they pursue their projects.

Y2Y New Haven, a student-led, overnight crisis housing program for young adults also made a pitch during the event.

NATALIE KAINZ
Natalie Kainz currently serves as the editor of YTV — the video desk of the Yale Daily News. She also covers Yale and New Haven relations as a staff reporter. Originally from Hong Kong, she is a Sophomore in Silliman College majoring in Political Science.