Austin Harrison, a 24-year-old Brigham Young University computer science major, founded the micro-finance startup Haedrian. The service aims to connect people in developing nations to micro-loan firms through an app. Haedrian uses digital currency like Bitcoin to transfer the money.
"We're basically creating bank accounts for 3 billion adults who don't have financial access and, on top of that, giving them a credit score," Harrison said. "We see it as a huge need" in places like the Phillipines, Kenya and Ghana, he said.
Haedrian's team of six men and two women hopes judges on Saturday will agree.
The U.'s challenge is one of several end-of-the-year competitions put on by college and university business schools this spring. One overall winner will take home a $40,000 top prize to help launch their business. And a series of smaller grants will be awarded.
Nationwide, only one university provides more cash to student entrepreneurs, according to ranking board Princeton Review. Last year, Rice University in Houston, Texas, set aside $1.4 million for student startups; the U. divvied up $744,550.
Out of 172 original teams, 20 made it past qualifying rounds hosted by other colleges or online. Online voting closes Friday at midnight, and a reward will go to the popular favorite.
Last year's winning team, Cowboy Kolaches, put the cash toward opening a Rock Springs, Wyo., shop that sells savory, filled donuts from central Europe.
Among this year's teams, Harrison and a group of about 10 BYU students were developing their financial service, which would offer its most basic service for free and charge for more complex elements, when a friend majoring in business told them about the competition.
"It was kind of a last-minute decision," he said. "We barely made the deadline."
Haedrian's founders plan to start service in the Philippines this summer, but the prize money could expand the company's reach rapidly, Harrison said.
Prize money from Zions Bank "is critical" to the development of new student businesses, said Troy D'Ambrosio, executive director of the Lassonde Institute, in a prepared statement.
The competition, which started in 2000, is part of a series of student-run contests called the Utah Entrepreneur Series. They launch each year with fall "innovation tournaments" and other competitions at colleges across the state. The Utah Entrepreneur Challenge is the final event in the series.
Not all applicants are computer scientists. Here's a breakdown of the original 172 competing teams by industry:
High-tech 32 percent
Service 18 percent
Manufacturing 8 percent
Health 7 percent
Food 7 percent
Medical 4 percent
Environmental 4 percent
Other 20 percent