An 18-year-old entrepreneur has idea that could change the world -- and she might help change the tech industry too

Sharon Lin#BuiltByGirlsSharon Lin was the winner of this year’s #BuiltByGirls contest.

Sharon Lin is not your typical 18-year-old.

A freshman at MIT, Lin helped develop an Android app while interning at the US State Department. She’s this year’s Youth Poet Laureate in New York City. And She was named to Crain’s 20 under 20 list.

She’s also prospective entrepreneur who’s CEO of her own company. And in that role, she could help reshape the tech industry and possibly change the world, if a recent contest is any indication.

This week, Lin won the annual #BuiltByGirls startup challenge and its $US10,000 prize. She was recognised for an app she developing to help impoverished communities around the world cheaply and easily find out whether their water supplies are contaminated with harmful bacteria.

“You only have to look at the finalists of the #BuiltByGirls Challenge … to know that the future is in good hands,” said Nisha Dua, the founder of #BuiltByGirls, the organisation behind the contest.

Promoting women

Run by Verizon-owned Oath, #BuiltByGirls works to promote women in tech. It offers mentorships to young women and helps them get hands-on experience at top tech companies and venture capital funds. It also runs a yearly contest focused on encouraging women who are interested in becoming tech entrepreneurs.

At this year’s contest, five finalists pitched their startup ideas to a panel of judges at Spotify’s San Francisco offices. They had been selected from among 450 applicants.

The finalists, some of whom were solo entrepreneurs like Lin and some of which were parts of multi-person teams, had each taken a few days off school to fly in and compete for the prize. Gold and blue balloons waved from the stage and vegan cupcakes sat waiting as the entrepreneurs pitched their ideas for solving problems including autism-related anxiety, waste decomposition, and knee injuries.

Lin was the the last entrepreneur to take the stage. Her presentation walked the audience through microbial analysis and the app she’s developing. The app uses machine learning to analyse photos of water samples and can recognise different bacterial strains. To show how it works, Lin, who created a company called White Water to develop the app, tested it on photos sent from a family in China.

White Water’s app isn’t fully developed; Lin still needs to build out a database of water samples. But the program could have a lot of promise — it was designed so that even people without a background in science could use it to test their water.

The contest judges were obviously impressed. After only a brief deliberation, they named Lin the winner of the contest.

Lin was excited not only about winning, but also what that might mean for her company and idea.

“It’s given me the confidence of knowing that there are people who care about issues such as water quality analysis, and that there is genuine interest in developing enterprise software for developing nations,” she said.

From personal interest to winning app

#BuiltByGirls Startup competition#BuiltbyGirlsErin Smith, left, who won last year’s #BuiltByGirls challenge, chats with Aileen Lee, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, during this year’s contest.

Lin’s own interest in solving the problem of water quality came from personal connections. She has family in China who live in small villages that lack the money and resources to perform lab tests on their well water. She’d heard enough of stories about water-related disease outbreaks there to know they didn’t have a good way to make sure their water was drinkable.

As a senior in high school, she participated in a Science Olympiad competition, where she saw presentations on water quality testing systems. She wanted to find out more, so she reached out to university professors for more information.

Eventually, she came up with her idea for White Water. She decided to enter the #BuiltByGirls challenge to spur her to develop the White Water app past its prototype stage and figure out how she could scale the product to market.

“I was excited about the opportunity to meet other girls who were also pursuing innovative ideas, and who I could look to for inspiration as a female founder,” Lin said.

She’s not quite sure what she is going to do with her prize money. She knows she has a lot more research to do, and that building up a database of water samples will not be simple.

Right now, she’s balancing White Water with her first semester at MIT. She starts each day at 7 a.m. and either finishes up homework or works on her app for a few hours before her 11 a.m. class. Balancing her time between classes, White Water, and off-campus activities can be tough, but Lin seems to know how to handle it better than most.

She still has a ways to go before making her full entrance into the tech world. But as her win at the #BuiltByGirls challenge indicates, she’s already making a big impression.

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