ByChase Ezell

Apr 27, 2015

Have you wondered if your old smartphone could used in another capacity?  Used smartphones in good condition are affordable, adaptable and have a wide range of capabilities. Smartphones still have the capacity to capture, process, store and transfer data, with working features including an accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS, camera and display screen. And yet, the U.S. EPA estimates 135 million smartphones (or cellphones) are discarded each year, with only 11% being responsibly recycled as consumers upgrade to new models.

‘While ‘old’ cell phones may seem passe, they are actually a very advanced computer with all kinds of features and potential’, says Darren Beck, Sprint’s Director of Environmental Initiatives and CR Innovation.

Students and sustainability

Image courtesy of Sprint Newsroom.
Image courtesy of Sprint Newsroom.

In conjunction with Brightstar Corp. and HOBI International, Sprint recently concluded its inaugural Smartphone Encore Challenge – a call-to-action for students to find profitable and innovative ways to repurpose old smartphones or their components. The Challenge was facilitated by Net Impact, the leading nonprofit that empowers a new generation to work within and beyond business for a sustainable future.

Sprint envisioned the challenge as a way to address the growing environmental issue of electronic waste by engaging students to use their creativity and expertise to spur innovative solutions. And nothing spurs innovation like a little friendly competition among students.

Registration for the competition was limited to just 25 teams and Beck shared with Earth911 that registering teams was not an issue at all due to enthusiastic response.  Student teams had to be current members of  Net Impact’s 155 undergraduate and graduate chapters across the U.S.

Teams were provided by Sprint and Brightstar with two pre-owned Android smartphones with batteries and chargers for reference and prototyping. The phones were activated with domestic voice, text and data for the duration of the contest.  Teams were then challenged to develop a product concept, business pitch and an optional brief video using the refurbished smartphones and accessories.

Making markets 

While waste diversion was certainly a big component of the competition, so too was creating a potential new market and/or stimulating demand in the aftermarket.

‘The best solutions are market-based solutions’ says Beck. ‘Sprint has been investigating for some time now how to reclaim and help facilitate extending the life of these devices – even possibly having them used in powering an existing or even yet-to-be-developed product. It’s all about value’ adds Beck.

In conjunction with Earth Day, Sprint recently concluded the Smartphone Encore Challenge.  Submissions were  judged on how well teams defined the problem, market, solution, innovation, value proposition and financial feasibility associated with their business idea and on the pitch delivery of their submission. And, Sprint recently announced the Encore Challenge winner – TouchCart.

Encore Challenge Infographic 4-2015TouchCart 

The winning team from the University of California, Berkeley, created TouchCart, a ”smart” grocery cart that aims to transform traditional shopping carts into multi purpose shopping assistants, providing savings for grocery stores and an improved shopping experience for customers.

“We were impressed with the caliber of entries and the innovative solutions these students put forth. We envisioned the Challenge as a way to address the growing environmental issue of electronic waste by engaging students to use their creativity and expertise to spur innovative solutions – we are excited for the possibilities that these winning ideas bring to the table,” said Doug Michelman, Sr. VP of Corporate Relations, Sprint.

The winning team receives:

  • $5,000, which can be used toward attending Startup Weekend  to help take their idea to the next level.
  • The opportunity to strengthen their business model through strategic guidance from Sprint, Brightstar
    or HOBI executives.

Two teams were selected as runners-up in the challenge.

  • The first, a team of two MBA students led by Sreekanth Krishnakumar from Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, converts old smartphones into onboard monitoring devices for vehicles called, StreetSmart. The devices would calculate automobile insurance premiums based on individual driving behaviors, provide feedback and financial incentivizes for users to adopt better driving practices, and serve as a black box recorder that can be reviewed in case of accidents.
  • The second runner-up is a team of three led by Biplab Deka, a Ph.D. student in electrical and
    computer engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Their entry, Neo, transforms
    pre-owned smartphones into affordable computers for budding programmers. The device would help
    address the “digital divide” by providing computer access to school-aged children who otherwise
    would not be able to take advantage of programming tools.

Sustainable Innovation at Sprint

The Smartphone Encore Challenge is a continued demonstration of Sprint’s commitment to sustainable innovation and leadership in corporate sustainability. For the fourth straight year, Sprint has been recognized as having the best phone buyback and trade-in program among all major U.S. carriers by Compass Intelligence and broke the Guinness World Record for the number of cell phones recycled in a single week back in 2013.

As part of its industry-leading Electronics Stewardship Policy to work only with certified recyclers to achieve aggressive recycling goals, Sprint has taken steps to promote environmental sustainability in production of new devices and packaging. Sprint is the only carrier to partner with the U.S. EPA, as part of the agency’s Sustainable Materials Management Electronics Challenge Program, and to win the program’s prestigious Champion Award

Feature image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

By Chase Ezell

Chase has served in various public relations, communications and sustainability roles. He is a former managing editor for