Microsoft’s Imagine Cup looks for IT gems in the rough

The ultimate science fair returns in the Philippines as Microsoft launched the regional leg of the Imagine Cup in partnership with the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

If you want to have some idea about the future, Microsoft recommends talking to students. And that makes complete sense considering that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs started their multi-million technology brands while they were in college.

Every year, the IT giant does exactly that in the Imagine Cup. Currently in its 12th year, the contest challenges student developers and aspiring entrepreneurs to create innovative technology projects and eventually bring those ideas to market.

The Philippines has been a strong contender, consistently landing in the world finals in the last couple of years and even bringing home the second prize in Imagine Cup 2011.

Filipinos has also been doing especially well outside the podium, says Louie Casambre, executive director of the DOST Information and Communication Technology Office (DOST-ICTO).

Without figures, he said in his welcoming remarks that the “Philippines is actually one of the largest suppliers of IT talents in the world”

But the potential is not without caveats. While enormous IT talent abound, the country has yet to produce tech heavyweight brands of its own.

“I know guys who teleport to Seattle working from home here. But we still don’t have our own Apple, Microsoft or Waze. We might have contributed to that but why not be in the forefront?” Casambre pointed out.

What the country needs are more product managers, says Alvin Gendrano, director for the developer and platform group at Microsoft Philippines, to connect raw talent to consumer needs.

“The ingredients are there but what makes a Silicon Valley very successful in terms of creating super startups like Facebook is the presence of these product managers who connect our people to products people need,” he said.

For the Imagine Cup, Microsoft Philippines plans to tap budding developers to solve pressing government problems. With the help of the DOST, priority issues have been trimmed down to three, which are health, environment and e-government.

Microsoft said that 1.65 million students from 190 countries have so far participated from 190 countries in the last 10 years. In the Philippines, some 1,000 students have participated to date.

Casambre has been a judge in previous iterations of the Imagine Cup in the Philippines and commended the number of great ideas he has seen. One thing he’s happy not to see is guys wearing Guy Fawkes masks, now strongly associated with activist group Anonymous.

“The Imagine Cup gives students a chance to show bright ideas. Another good thing about this is they don’t become hackers.”