Three Colby students who want to make it easier for international scholars to access life-changing college scholarships finished first in the Maine Startup Challenge at the Roux Institute at Northeastern University in Portland. They will work next with Colby’s newly established Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship and the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence to further develop their idea and see if it can work in the real world.
Organized by the Maine Venture Fund, the Maine Startup Challenge celebrates entrepreneurial thinking, as competitors submit business plans explaining their ideas and a panel of judges identifies the best and most innovative among them. The Colby cohort—Desmond Frimpong ’26, Miz Insigne ’26, and Peggy Jones ’26—won $3,000 in the competition, which they will use to advance their project to the next phase. They finished first in the college division, ahead of teams from Dartmouth College (second place), the University of Southern Maine (third place), and others. There were more than 100 applicants among four age divisions.
The Colby students, all of whom have international backgrounds, pitched a web-based application called ScholarSheets. Its goal is to help students simplify the search for colleges and scholarships by using the AI natural language model ChatGPT to filter and sort information based on their profile and eligibility. Frimpong, Insigne, and Jones developed their idea this summer at the SureStart AI boot camp administered by Colby’s Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship.
“We all know the struggles of being international students and having to find scholarships that are available to us and that actually help us,” said Insigne, who is from the Philippines. “I remember scrolling through all of these websites and being frustrated how disorganized they were. And I thought, ‘Wait a minute—why don’t we actually have something that helps with this?’”
SureStart is a national model for building pipelines of diverse tech workers through AI skill-training and project-based learning. The summer-long SureStart curriculum at Colby evolved from a longtime friendship between Amanda Stent, director of the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Taniya Mishra, founder and CEO of SureStart.
Frimpong, who is majoring in computer science and minoring in economics, said winning the statewide competition empowered him and his peers to pursue it further. “It confirms we are learning good stuff at Colby and that we should put it to practice so we can help change the world,” said Frimpong, who is from Ghana. “We hope to remove barriers and make college more affordable for international students.”
Added Jones, an environmental computation major also from Ghana, “We wanted to see how people from the outside world viewed this project in and of itself. We wanted to know, should we really move on with it or dump it? And at the end of the day, people were really proud of our idea and some asked, ‘Why is this not in existence already?’ That response validated all the work we had done throughout the summer.”
Since winning the Maine Startup Challenge in October, the students have not worked on their ScholarSheets project, mostly because their academic commitments have kept them busy throughout the semester. With $3,000 in prize money from the Maine Venture Fund and the prospect of additional funding from the Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship, their immediate goal is to carve out time to plan and tackle the next phase of the project.
“We have established a good idea and documented a little bit of demand,” Insigne said. “Now we want to do more quantitative and qualitative research to find ways we can further develop the idea to show there is even more demand.”
That’s where the Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship can help. The lab, which launched this fall, provides entrepreneurship education and training programs, funding for students to start commercial and social enterprises, mentorships, and opportunities for innovation. The lab works to develop an entrepreneurship ecosystem of alumni, faculty, staff, and community members, along with companies, organizations, and institutions.
It offers students Ideate and Explore Grants up to $500. These grants are intended to help identify and validate an unmet need. The second tier is the Iterate and Expand Grant for up to $5,000, which is intended for teams that have identified an unmet need and are ready to test their product or service, which may involve building a prototype.
In the entrepreneurial ecosystem
Jeremy Barron ’00, the lab’s inaugural director, said the students have met the requirements for the Ideate and Explore Grant and now must decide how to proceed. Working with the Halloran Lab’s network of alumni and mentors who can provide experience and critical feedback, the students will be given the opportunity to hone the details of their idea, conduct market research, and test ScholarSheets in real-world settings.
“They are now in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. They have some money, and now they have to decide if they want to continue and, if so, how to build it out,” he said. “And that will be up to them. Many people get to the point of winning pitch competitions, but that is a very different process than actually deciding if they want to build the vision of their company they sold people on during their pitch. We hope to see them drive their business forward because I do believe in their idea. I would be so thrilled if they pursued it.”
Stent, the director of the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence, praised the students for their hard work, the Halloran Lab for its partnership, and the SureStart program for encouraging students from diverse backgrounds to pursue AI.
“We are so excited that they won, and we hope they actually make this thing, because a lot of people would use it,” Stent said. “We look forward to providing technical and AI support to these great students.”