Student Researchers Develop Stablecoin to Earn Grainger Prize



By Casey Moffitt
The StarPay team

A team of student researchers at Illinois Institute of Technology won the second annual Grainger Computing Innovation Prize by developing a cross-compatible, simple-to-use Stablecoin solution to help solve the financial access gap for millions of Mexico’s unbanked.

The winning team, StarPay, took home the $15,000 first prize in a finals event on November 9, 2022, that was judged by a panel of Chicago’s technology experts.

“With 90 percent of all transactions being in cash, fragmented smartphone capabilities, and inconsistent internet coverage, there is a great need for a simple, cross-compatible payment network,” says André Guardia (PHYS 4th Year), StarPay’s team leader. “Financial access in Latin America is profoundly important to us, as we've experienced firsthand the cascading consequences of being outside the traditional financial system: theft, corruption, predatory rates, and exclusion from digital services. We want to build a future where anyone can access financial services, regardless of what kind of phone they have, their location, or income level.”

Stablecoins, a form of cryptocurrency that is pegged to a reference asset, are at the forefront of digital payment, with Mexico’s government aiming to launch its own Centralized Digital Bank Currency, Crypto-Peso, by 2025. Building local, crypto-native payment networks in Mexico will be challenging, but StarPay aspires to become “the go-to payment solution for the future of the country’s CDBC infrastructure.”

The StarPay team includes Jorge Plascencia (AE 2nd Year), Rishabh Tyagi (CS 4th Year), David Singer (ITM 4th Year), and Guardia.

Five teams of Illinois Tech student researchers were invited to the Grainger Computing Innovation Prize finals. They pitched their prototypes to a panel of judges, the Illinois Tech community, and invited guests. The goal of the competition is to build interdisciplinary teams of students to exhibit their computing skills in big data, artificial intelligence, and data science projects with the potential to positively impact society. Teams were encouraged to tackle projects in “computing with data for social good” to address real-world problems in education, health, energy, public safety, transportation, economic development, sustainable smart infrastructure, climate change, and more.

A highly competitive field with a range of projects composed the finals. Team GreenGrid earned the second prize of $10,000 with a blockchain-powered microgrid system that efficiently manages renewable power and power distribution. Team DonateMates developed a food courier app that facilitates restaurant donations to address communities’ lack of food access, and was awarded the $5,000 third prize.

“The Grainger Prize finalists all demonstrated the talent and innovative thinking that abounds in the Illinois Tech community,” says Brian Walker, Illinois Tech trustee and vice president and chief product officer at Grainger, a Fortune 500 industrial supply company founded in Chicago in 1927. “Team StarPay shows our students’ passion for creating technological solutions that can impact the global community.”

The panel of judges also included Trenton Dunn, manager of the ThinkChicago program, a national STEM talent attraction and retention program led by World Business Chicago in partnership with the city; Tim Stojka, co-founder of three technology businesses, including the cloud-based software and data analytics company Agentis, where he is now CEO; Keith Carlson, who, as chief technology officer of Relativity, leads one of the largest tech teams in Chicago, producing global, secure, end-to-end legal and compliance software; and Jonny LeRoy, vice president and chief technology officer of Grainger.

Teams were made up of students from different fields of study and from various backgrounds to encourage diversity of thought, unique solutions, and cross-disciplinary collaborations. However, a computing element was required for each project.

“Computing is key to addressing global problems of today and of the future,” says Lance Fortnow, dean of Illinois Tech’s College of Computing. “Using computing as a solution to those issues is a key mission of the College of Computing: infusing data and computing into the core of Illinois Tech’s educational approach across all disciplines.”

The competition grants students the opportunity to apply their creativity and know-how to discover solutions to pertinent global issues.

“Illinois Tech is purpose-driven. We harness the collective power of difference to drive innovation for all,” says Illinois Tech President Raj Echambadi. “The Grainger Computing Innovation Prize reflects this purpose as we call students to bring different ways of thinking to tackle some of the grand challenges of our time and advance technology and progress for all.”

A generous endowed gift funded by The Grainger Foundation, an independent, private foundation established by William W. Grainger, the founder of W.W. Grainger, Inc., supports the Grainger Computing Innovation Prize annually.

“The Grainger Computing Innovation Prize perfectly exemplifies what a difference philanthropy makes at Illinois Tech to provide students with hands-on experiences at innovating and using technology to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges,” says Ernie Iseminger, Illinois Tech’s vice president of advancement.