The National Basketball Association has a tough question. How can the NBA profitably increase engagement of its fans in international markets where its games are televised outside of normal viewing hours? Fortunately for the $8-billion-a-year pro sports giant, three students from Morgan State University (MSU) have an intriguing answer: an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered application designed to make it easy for NBA fans to interact with one another beyond viewing games. With the N-Gage App, fans who wish to be active and play basketball can link up anytime with local friends wanting to do the same. N-Gage scans your area and identifies basketball courts near you, as well as people who are ‘down to hoop.’ Not feeling like being active? N-Gage makes it easy to challenge friends with open-source-augmented virtual reality games and quizzes.
That was the dream scenario that came to life in early April at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund-NBA “Innovate the Future” business competition, where the MSU team composed of senior Finance major Evan Robertson, senior Electrical Engineering major Victor Oyare Oko and junior Electrical Engineering major Martins Umeh took top honors. Each of Morgan’s winning competitors took home a $10,000 scholarship and NBA and Thurgood Marshall College Fund merchandise from the one-and-a-half-day event, which was created to inspire innovative and entrepreneurial-minded students of publicly supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities to change the world through business and technology. Kofi Nyarko, Ph.D., associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at MSU, was the faculty advisor for Morgan’s students. Teams from Alabama A&M University, Fayetteville State University, Florida A&M University and Grambling State University also participated in the competition by presenting their solutions to one of the event’s three case studies.
The three Morgan champions are all high academic achievers with cumulative grade point averages of 3.7 or higher, but they believe it was their drive to succeed that gave them the edge in the arena.
“We were determined to win the competition from the time that we submitted the application,” said Team Leader Robertson, a native of Baltimore, Maryland. “We made plans to meet as a team every week before we even knew if we would be advancing to the next round. We set up team calls with NBA employees, NBA fans who would potentially benefit from our solution, and a number of experienced advisors. On top of that, we were all familiar with the culture of these pitch competitions, as we have each previously participated in at least one of the pitch competitions hosted by Thurgood Marshall College Fund. The team was hand-picked according to the skills that we each possessed. We had a well-rounded team that included a business manager, software engineer and user experience (UX) designer. Each role complemented the others.”
Strong career plans are another thing the teammates have in common. Robertson plans to do management consulting for technology start-up companies in the future and is slated to join Microsoft Corporation in Seattle as a Finance Rotation Program analyst immediately after graduation this May. He also hopes to grow his own start-up, a company named Rendevoo, which is a software platform for relationship management. Oko, who hails from Benue State Nigeria, will join Columbia University’s Master of Science program in technology management this fall as his next step toward a career in project and product management in the technology industry. He also plans to grow his start-up business, urConvey, a software platform to facilitate multiple-passenger vehicle pickups. Umeh, from Lagos, Nigeria, will work as an artificial intelligence intern at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this summer and ultimately wants to have a career in AI with a focus on machine learning and deep learning.
The Morgan students all said they gained by building their technical, interpersonal and time management skills during “Innovate the Future,” but they point to other big benefits of their participation as well.
“Creativity,” said Umeh. “First of all, if you look around you, everything you see is a by-product of some kind of competition…. Creativity brings out the best in all of us, and without competitions like this, we would end up settling for far less than…we are truly capable of.”
“…The bond that I formed with my teammates is something that cannot be taken from me,” said Robertson. “…I knew them before the competition, but not like I know them now. We literally spent hours on the phone every night leading up to the competition. We will never get that time back, so I am glad that I could spend it building these bonds with ‘my brothers.’”