A Team Without Rivals: The $15K Creative Arts Competition

Emma Kaye, Sloan ’22 and team Cosmosii win 2022 competition


It is a rare competition where every entrant truly wins. This year’s $15K Creative  Arts Competition was one of those. “This felt less like a competition and more like a learning opportunity than any competition I’ve been involved with,” said Zahra Kanji, ’22 IDM and Sloan, one of the competition’s five finalists with team Aravani Art. “Every single person with whom we interacted along the way helped us develop and express our concept. The teams even had a plan for splitting the first prize five ways.”

Kanji and Aravani Art didn’t need to calculate their share of the prize money. For the first time in the competition’s nine-year history, all finalist teams received $2,500 in seed money. “It was amazing to collaborate with the other teams,” said Emma Kaye, Sloan ’22, whose team Cosmosii took the $15,000 first prize. “To have peers and mentors who understood the value of what we were bringing to the table. Entrepreneurship can feel like family under the right conditions. And the arts are a way to experience the joy of that family.”

Established in 2013, the $15K Creative Arts Competition encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to explore the fertile intersection of business, technology, and the arts. Throughout the year, teams work with mentors and peers from within and beyond the MIT community to develop viable business plans and pitches for arts-based ventures. “Conveying a complex idea in a five-minute presentation is always challenging,” said first year finals judge Rachel Soo Hoo Smith, ’21 PhD Media Lab. “And many competitions place too much emphasis on that final pitch or on the prize money. This competition is different because it provides a whole pipeline of resources both before and after the final pitch session.”

The $15K Creative Arts Competition has evolved significantly through its 10-year history. “At first it was all about new music distribution models,” says Leila Kinney, Executive Director of Arts Initiatives and of the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST.) “Today we see a growing interest in using AI to transform artistic practice as well as efforts to rebuild community in the wake of the pandemic, and to give space to new voices in social justice through the arts. These are exciting developments.”


A Home for Innovation at MIT

This year’s 15K Arts competition was launched at an October event at iHQ—MIT’s newly opened Innovation Headquarters. The event also included breakout sessions and team building exercises. Multiple critique and mentoring sessions followed throughout the semester, many in the same facility. Thursday’s final pitch session took place on iHQ’s seventh floor.

“We are so pleased to have planted our flag in this building,” said Shannon Rose McAuliffe, manager of Student Art Programs at MIT, noting that MIT Arts has its own dedicated space at iHQ: the third floor Voxel Lab. “Having all of MIT’s innovation initiatives under one roof enables us to attract and welcome individuals and teams whose focus might not fit the parameters of other competitions. And we have a space, designed with student input, that will put them on track to succeed in entrepreneurial activities.”

Smith believes that rooting the arts more firmly into MIT’s entrepreneurial ecosystem will help change that culture for the better. “Creativity is a huge part of being an innovator,” she explained. “It appears in every aspect of entrepreneurship, in expression, in storytelling, in conception, in design, and in human empathy. We need to show that these elements are important even in the most technical facets of study at MIT.”


15K 2022

Twenty-four teams submitted applications for the $15K competition in early February. Each entrant received qualitative and quantitative feedback from judges, who then selected 13 teams. Five finalists emerged from that cohort.

All five finalist ventures were conceived to address a specific need in a specific community. Cosmosii, the competition winner, is an online marketplace that helps makers of custom goods find customers and run their businesses. “We are currently focused on the fine costume industry and cosplay (costume play) community,” said Kaye, who delivered her team’s final pitch in costume. “But we are prepared to tailor our approach and model to other communities in the future.”

Kanji’s Aravani Art team provides support and livelihoods for India’s oppressed transgender community by training its members to plan and execute mural paintings in public spaces. To date, the for-profit company has trained more than 30 artists and completed 50 murals across India, generating $32,000 in revenues.

Divine, which due to team member travel and illness made their pitch through a five-minute video, offers filmmakers and story creators a cost-effective entry point to virtual production technology. “We were grateful to participate, even virtually,” said co-founder Dominique Roberts, an LLM candidate at Harvard Law School. “We were passionate about Divine before we entered, but the competition forced us to make it a priority, to devote time and energy to moving it forward.”

Flux provides a time-saving platform for creatives. The AI engine gives them access to an almost infinite warehouse of online images that creatives can access with either keywords, sketches, or other images. Flux then generates new images for storyboards and presentations in minimal time. “The feedback we received during the competition didn’t just help us shape our presentation,” said Flux founder Leandra Tejedor, ’23 IDM. “It helped us shape our business.”

Eric Fedderson, Sloan ’22, founder of finalist team Prisma, said the competition turned into a journey of self-discovery. “I’ve always loved art, but I wasn’t planning to create a business in the arts when I came to MIT,” said Fedderson. His company helps art galleries in emerging countries monetize their art and support local artists by converting their artworks to NFTs and marketing them online. “This experience has helped me realize I could build a business in a field that I am passionate about.”


The Art of Business


For first-year judge Rachel Smith, the 15K competition and similar arts initiatives can dramatically expand the pool of potential student innovators. “We want to help students identify as innovators sooner and to broaden their idea of what an entrepreneurial person is,”  said Smith, who is Climate Team Lead at HelixNano–local startup–and also is this year’s Innovator-in-Residence at iHQ. “We’d like to involve people who might not otherwise feel comfortable presenting to an audience or competing for prize money. We think the arts are a great way to do that.”


Article by Ken Shulman
Editorial Direction by Leah Talatinian, Arts at MIT

Posted on May 18, 2022 by Tim Lemp