News  Controversy surrounding Hult Prize remains

McGill student alleges million-dollar idea was stolen

Coming off their September 23 win of the Hult Prize, five McGill MBA students face allegations of dishonesty. McGill graduate student Jakub Dzamba claims that he contributed to the team’s presentations on the condition that he would share in its victory of the award. So far, Dzamba alleges, the team has failed to give him either proper credit or proper compensation for his work.

Dzamba, a doctoral candidate in architecture, spends much of his time designing cricket farms, or ‘reactors,’ which he hopes will provide people with an efficient, sustainable food source. “The main idea now is to come up with these low-cost [cricket farms] that can be deployed to regions of the world that are experiencing food insecurity,” he said in an interview with The Daily.

The team of five won the Hult Prize by pitching an initiative to make insect consumption more efficient through farming. “We hope to provide a delicious, culturally acceptable source of protein to the millions of people around the world who don’t have access to nutritious food,” explained team member Shobhita Soor in a promotional video.

The global food crisis was the theme of this year’s Hult Prize, a competition whose mandate is to encourage social entrepreneurship. Through several rounds, teams from around the world pitched solutions to the year’s proposal in the hopes of securing the grand prize – $1 million from the Clinton Foundation to kick-start their project.

While Dzamba argues that the team used his work under false pretenses, the team released a statement to The Daily saying that his contributions played no significant role in their victory, but rather that he was one of many people they consulted over the course of the competition.

The Dispute

The team first approached Dzamba in February, in the time leading up to the Hult Prize regional finals in Boston. Though the idea of farming insects was not new to them, he says they needed help with the particulars and soon invited him to a team meeting.

This second meeting, too, was a success. “[Team-member Gabriel Mott] and I were talking after and that’s where he brought up that if I helped them with the semi-final, they’d make me part of the team,” said Dzamba.

In the days and weeks before the Boston semi-final, Dzamba spent considerable time consulting with the team, adjusting reactor models and designing graphics for the presentation – a combined 124 hours, according to one University document.

Robert Kok, professor emeritus and long-time academic advisor to Dzamba, recounted Dzamba’s mood at the time to The Daily. “He was looking forward to working with them and developing the ideas and the concepts. Of course, at first, there was no concern.”

Dzamba alleged that the team “ended up taking a lot of credit for a lot of the things that I did, which I was sort of okay with because I thought I was a part of their team […] but at the same time, they were becoming increasingly resistant to formalizing any kind of partnership or agreement.”

His attempts to lay down his relationship with the team in a contract came to a head when he finally insisted on a meeting. There, “they made it very clear, there’s going to be no partnership, no working together at all – they’re not interested in it,” said Dzamba. “So I said, ‘that’s fine. You can pay me for my work and I’ll leave.’”

He soon returned, bill in hand for his work as a technical consultant. However, the team did not pay the $25,000 that Dzamba requested as part of his “consultancy fee,” and negotiations between the two parties temporarily stalled.

The team won the competition on September 23, receiving a $1 million cheque from Bill Clinton.

Settlement Attempts

When the two parties failed to reach an agreement, Dzamba asked the University to mediate negotiations. McGill in turn responded by assembling a review committee, which released its assessment of the dispute, as well as several recommendations, on August 8.

Naming Dzamba the sole patent holder for the cricket farm, the committee suggested that the Hult prize team recognize his “substantive contribution to the Hult Prize Regional Final presentation.” It recommended that the team pay him a consultancy fee of $5,300, as it was too late to include him in the team.

“Even though it was way less than I asked for, I said right away, ‘I’m willing to sign [the resolution],’” said Dzamba.

For its part, the Hult Prize team stated that it, too, was willing to sign: “We have agreed to, and signed, the resolution put forth by the office of Postdoctoral Studies at McGill,” the team wrote in an email statement to The Daily.

Dzamba, however, said that the resolution they agreed to sign was a modified version of the original. As he saw it, the new contract contained a “gag order, which was so broadly and aggressively written that if I’d signed it, I don’t think I even would have been able to tell my professor I invented the farm.”

Dzamba supplied The Daily with a copy of the contract dated September 20, three days before the New York final. It reads, “Both parties agree that they are satisfied with this resolution, and further agree not to speak about this dispute publicly. Further, both parties agree not to speak about or reference each other moving forward, unless to clarify that the dispute has been completely resolved.”

The names and signatures of each Hult Prize team member stand in a column at the bottom of the contract. Dzamba’s name has a column to itself and ample blank space for a signature.

Moving Forward

Despite having labelled Dzamba’s contributions “substantive” in the Proposed Resolution, the University now suggests that they were largely immaterial to the team’s victories.

In an email statement to The Daily, Olivier Marcil, McGill’s Vice-Principal (Communications and External Relations), wrote that the University has confirmed that the Hult Prize team’s final presentation contained no reference to Dzamba’s cricket farm design. Similarly, he noted that “The University has also verified that the team’s regional presentation did not contain any technical elements of the portable cricket farm” for which Dzamba holds a patent.

“The beauty of a research environment in any university is that there are many complementary ideas developed,” wrote Marcil. “At times there will be conflict that arises from [the interchange of ideas]. This most often results from misunderstanding and honest disagreement among people of integrity.”

From Marcil’s statement to that of the McGill Hult Prize team, in which they thank the “many people and organizations” they consulted over the course of competition, to the Hult Prize itself, which claims “crowdsourcing brilliant solutions” to be its founding principle, the sharing of ideas may itself seem like a commonly shared ideal.

Ultimately, though, Dzamba emphasized his want for recognition.

“I’m totally open with just discussing the original offer that McGill University proposed and getting fair credit for my work,” he said.