Acara Institute on the Environment | University of Minnesota Tue, 23 Sep 2014 16:50:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Grand Challenge Impact Studio Wed, 10 Sep 2014 20:21:00 +0000 Poverty. Social inequality. World hunger. Climate change. Disease. Religious intolerance. These are some of the Grand Challenges President Kaler called out in his 2014 State of the University speech. There are many UMN students who are interested in these topics, are taking courses on developing solutions or may already have a venture or business idea. The Grand Challenge Impact Studio is an initiative at the UMN to help you develop and solidify your idea, connect with a strong network of mentors and experts and to launch a pilot.

The Studio is a weekly facilitated session and is intended to be a compliment to any class or program you may be taking.  It will provide a focused time with mentors, outside experts and other students working on similar challenges. This is co-curricular, no credit.  They are scheduled Mondays 3:30-5:00 at IonE on the St. Paul campus. If that time doesn’t work for you, let us know times that may, we will try to schedule a few sessions at other times on the West or East Bank. It’s easy to get to IonE on the St. Paul campus via the connector, which stops right across the street. The Studio starts Monday, Sept 29 and continues through Dec 8. We will likely continue in the spring semester to help teams develop ideas for pilots and minimal viable products.

The Impact Studio is a collaboration of many individuals across campus and is being operated by the Acara program in the Institute on the Environment.  Acara is the 2014 winner of the UMN C. Eugene Allen Award for Innovative International Initiatives and has helped develop and launch such ventures as MyRain, a drip irrigation business for small plot farmers in India, Minneapolis-based Twin Fin Aquaponics and Minneapolis-based Eat For Equity. The Impact Studio will also work hand-in-hand with Boreas Leadership Program.

The Impact Studio will include a series of guest mentors. Mentors already committed include: Simone Ahuja, author of Jugaad Innovation,  Brad Lordhing and Scott Nelson of LogicPD, a leading design firm in the area of Internet of Things, Tony Loyd, former executive of John Deere and Medtronic, Leo Sharkey, General Manager, Siemens Water Technologies and others. All have a long track record of innovation in Grand Challenge areas.

Students must apply to be accepted into the GC Studio. The application is here.  Applications are due no later than Sept 22, we will accept on a rolling basis so don’t wait, as we have limited space. You may sign up as an individual or as part of a team. There is no fee associated with the Studio, nor will students receive credit. This is a new initiative we are testing this fall and will have limited enrollment. It’s a great opportunity and you can help shape the GC Studio concept.

There are many great programs now around the university for entrepreneurship, design thinking and others. The GC Impact Studio is not meant to duplicate any of those. It is meant to provide an additional support to develop students interested in impact on Grand Challenges.

 What’s a Grand Challenge?

The ongoing UMN-wide strategy team is developing a working definition of what is meant by a Grand Challenge for operational purposes. In the meantime, the following serves for our purposes[1]:

  1. The situation is emergent,
  2.    as a result, there is a constant flow of information to negotiate,
  3.       this means actors are constantly changing their behavior

Emergent in this case means the properties of the situation arise from the interactions of many parts, which in practical terms means you can’t predict it in advance.

The UMN Grand Challenge – Curriculum Sub-committee, which met over the 2014 summer, has a draft report on recommended action. That is not yet approved for release but the following section summarizes much of the objective of the proposed GC Impact Studio: “At both the undergraduate and post-baccalaureate levels, the goal of the Grand Challenges Curriculum is to help students develop a foundational set of knowledge, skills, and values. The focus is on competencies that prepare students to recognize grand challenges, assess possible points of intervention, and take action. These foundational competencies can be applied across a range of potential grand-challenge topics.”

Pilot: Following the process many team members teach in their respective programs, we are using lean startup methods, in this case proposing a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) to test basic assumptions. We propose to pilot the GC Impact Studio for students from various programs around the UMN.

What are the assumptions and hypotheses we want to validate with this MVP?

  • We hypothesize that a co-curricular studio environment can deliver and develop GC skills in students.
  • We hypothesize the Impact Studio can accelerate student led ventures focused on Grand Challenges.
  • We assume students will attend (what is the right mix of location, time, etc.):
  • We test the right program mix (skill building, mentoring, team interactions)
  • There are multiple options for working with students: for-credit classes, extra-curricular, student organization, grad/undergrad, post-graduation. This is a focus on co-curricular.
  • Mixing impact ventures, traditional for-profit, non-profit, policy ventures together will work in one studio.

What happens in the studio?
The studio will provide students a place to:

  • Work with mentors from inside and outside the university, who have expertise valuable to startup teams
  • Work with other students working on similar challenges
  • Connect with a network
  • Spend focused time on your plan
  • Learn skills (presenting, design thinking, funding strategies, etc.)

There will be external and internal UMN mentors in each session. The sessions will follow a general design thinking process of empathy<->design<->ideate<->prototype<->test, over the course of the semester. Again the purpose is to compliment what you are getting in class. It’s more one-on-one time.

The Acara team has delivered more than 10 one-week workshops/classes and 10 semester long courses (which have 3 hour class sessions). During this time, we have developed and used a number of workshop/skill-based sessions, interspersed with one-on-one mentoring. Many of these will form the basis for the sessions. We are not predefining the sessions at this point, except for the first two sessions which will be focused on design thinking.

How is this different from what students may be able to get in other ways or from mentors provided to them? Part of that answer lies in the eligibility. These are not general purpose entrepreneurship focused sessions. Those already exist at the UMN at Carlson and are great. We want to bring in the range of social, environmental, international and Grand Challenge focused ventures. There may be some overlap with other programs but that’s fine. More help for students the better.

[1] Melanie Mitchell, Complexity: A Guided Tour (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009)

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This is India Wed, 25 Jun 2014 20:35:32 +0000 DSC00243

We recently returned from our annual Summer Institute course in India. We had 14 UMN students plus 9 other students from India and the US. In pre-departure meetings and during our first few days in India, students asked us questions about aspects of India that appeared illogical to them. Often our response boiled down to, “it’s India”.  Over the last three weeks, students began to understand what that phrase meant; by the end of class, the class motto became “This is India.” Or as one of our van drivers said after one of many close calls in Bangalore traffic, “This is the India”.

For the students, and instructors, this class has been an impactful few weeks. There was no protective shell around the students in India. From day one, students were out in the street and in communities, learning first-hand about issues ranging from water (in)access in slums to solid waste challenges in one of India’s fastest growing cities to women’s livelihoods in rural villages.  A number of students asked why we didn’t help prepare them for what they did. In a way, we did: There were many reading assignments and discussions prior to leaving Minnesota. But the readings and discussions didn’t sink in until we were on the ground in India, which is precisely why we do classes like this.

During the class, we had the opportunity to work with many of Bangalore’s leading change-making organizations, such as Saahas, SELCO, TIDE, and MyRain, among others. One of the inspiring groups we interfaced with was The Ugly Indian, an anonymous movement of Indians cleaning up cities throughout India. With The Ugly Indian, we spent a morning “spot-fixing” one of Bangalore’s iconic streets, turning a neglected, trash-ridden sidewalk into a pleasant and hygienic public space, while attracting the attention of national publications and the neighborhood at large. It was a chance to be part of a movement that matters and to have fun getting into action with some of Bangalore’s most motivated, and known but unknown, social entrepreneurs.

This was an amazing group of students. Every group or organization we visited commented on the maturity of the students and their insightful questions. The students enthusiastically embraced everything from eating street food to negotiating with auto rickshaw drivers over the right fare. These are not skills that can be taught in a classroom.

These weeks in India are some of the best weeks of the year for me. It’s energizing to be with such passionate and smart young people and see their desire, despite the challenges, to tackle tough problems with their Midwestern grit.

“This is India” please meet “This is Minnesota”.

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Acara Challenge 2014 Tue, 18 Mar 2014 18:35:57 +0000 Patricia Dorsher and Ify Onyiah of College Credit

Patricia Dorsher and Ify Onyiah of College Credit

The 2014 version of the annual Acara Challenge was held Feb 21, 2014 at the lovely McNamara Alumni Center on the East Bank campus. This has been a brutal winter in Minnesota, the coldest in more than 30 years and one of the coldest on record. Of course, Feb 21 was one of the worst weather days of the winter, with 8-10 inches of snow, on top of ice, and cold weather. But we are a hardy bunch in Minnesota and the event went off on schedule. The Challenge was a little different this year. There was an International and a Domestic division, and only teams from the Universityof Minnesota participated. However, the competition was open to any UMN student and we had 11 great teams presenting, seven in the International Division and four in the Domestic Division.

The results of the Challenge, along with the plans and presentations of the teams, are here and listed below. The teams are now enjoying Spring Break. The teams are continuing to work and make progress. Several are planning to go to India, Uganda and Haiti for continued work this summer, as are some of the local teams. Stay tuned for updates.

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J Term Course, January 2014 Tue, 04 Feb 2014 03:34:19 +0000 January 2014 course.

January 2014 course.

The January-term course, CE5572/PA5290/ARCH 5550, is for students who want to bring their existing idea for a for profit or nonprofit social venture to fruition or scale. The 2-credit course occurred January 13-17, 2014, on the St. Paul campus.  It’s an intensive but fun one week. Students get a chance to focus on their project, without other distractions. There were 14 students this January and most of them will be presenting in the February 21, 2014 Acara Challenge. The idea summaries are below

Help Desk

Help Desk makes beautiful furniture using sustainably-sourced East African hard woods and the profits go to making classroom improvements in under-equipped Ugandan schools.


Sabujawalla addresses the waste issue in India by employing waste pickers to collect waste from households, sort it, and then sell plastics and organic material to scrap dealers and recycling plants.


Skivvies will sell underwear domestically; for every pair sold, a pair will be donated to a young girl in Haiti.  This underwear will be one way to help girls discretely manage their periods and therefore allow girls to regularly attend school.


SunFarms will establish small centers in rural communities to purchase and dry fruits and vegetables close to where they are produced, thereby decreasing food spoilage and increase farmer profits in rural India.


Tech-share will teach rural Ugandan students how to use computers through a mobile computer laboratory with the help of computer engineering students and staff from Mbarara University in western Uganda.

Women for Water

Women for Water recruits women from low-income families in Bangalore, India to go to their friends, families, and neighbors to give educational presentations and promote and sell water treatment technologies.


CollegeCredit plans to deliver well-designed, youthful, engaging online financial literacy courses and proprietary tools through partnerships with colleges and universities. This puts information directly into students’ hands, encouraging them to make decisions while still in college that will improve their financial situations.

Yellow Mellow

Yellow Mellow’s product will change the chemical environment of the toilet so that consumers can forego flushing often.


PowerToGo provides a mobile phone charging solution through a network of portable power sources to keep busy customers conveniently connected to our modern world.


Co-Lab is a co-working space at Carlson for UMN students.

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Visit to MyRain, June 2013 Wed, 19 Jun 2013 13:39:02 +0000 DSCN0052“I should be ashamed of this list, but I’m not.”

After spending the last year in rural India building the MyRain business he co-founded, Steele Lorenz (BS ’10), and his partner Paula Uniacke, were ready for some comfort snack food. So when I asked him if he wanted anything from the US before I left, he gave me a list that included items like Little Debby cookies and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I learned on the trip over to India that Little Debbie cookies caused TSA more problems than anything else I have ever carried onto an airplane. They seem to be impenetrable to x-rays. But the job Steele has done starting MyRain the past year deserves a whole shipping container of cookies.

One year ago this week, I picked up Steele at the airport in Bangalore, his first time in India. He and his co-founder, Sri Latha Ganti (MS ’11), had been working on the MyRain plan for the past two years since the Acara Challenge, identifying partners, angel investors and a CFO and refining the business plan. In spring 2012, Steele decided he was ready to launch, quit his consulting job in Minnesota where he had been for two years since graduating with a business degree from Carlson, and moved to Madurai in the extreme south of India.

Before moving to Madurai, MyRain aimed to sell drip irrigation to farmers. Drip irrigation was being manufactured in India but still many farmers didn’t have access to it due to the rural supply chain gap for farm technologies. And even though the team had piloted the venture idea in Summer 2011, the plan was still full of untested assumptions. Upon moving to India and after early growing pains, MyRain has begun to realize their vision. Steele has established a strong sales team and a network of dealers and retailers. They are now selling drip irrigation and other innovative farm technologies, such as seeders, weeders, sprinklers, post-harvest processing devices and sugar cane thrashers, that can enhance farmers’ livelihoods while improving environmental conditions.

Steele’s tale of his first year is one that defines entrepreneurship. Many months of hard work, a crash course in doing business in India, and a great deal of frustration. For Steele, being in a developing country half-way around the world, not speaking the local language, and being far away from his US support network, made these challenges all the more acute. The hard work and perseverance have paid off, though, with a few big breaks. Steele’s first break came when, after a few unsuccessful hires, he found a great operations manager in Manikandan. Having a local manager on board, and one with sales and marketing experience working in a Western business environment, was a huge step and allowed MyRain to make great strides in defining its value statement and market approach. The second was in finding a good manufacturing partner in KSNM, again after some earlier unsuccessful attempts at partnering with other companies.

MyRain: Steele, Manikandan, Selvi, Murgupondi, Ross

MyRain: Steele, Manikandan, Selvi, Murgupondi, Ross


Since February MyRain’s progress and growth have been explosive! Here are a couple of highlights from 2013 so far:

  • MyRain has delivered more than 2 tons of drip irrigation laterals this year and is paced to exceed 1 ton in sales per month by December 2013.
  • Since the beginning of the 2013, MyRain has had strong sales growth – 20% to 30% increases per month, every month.
  • To continue the pace of their rapid expansion and take advantage of strong demand in the fourth quarter of 2013, MyRain is looking to hire 2-3 new sales people this summer, which will double the size of the team in Madurai.

I saw enough ventures grow in my time working during the Indian globalization craze last decade to recognize the characteristics of the hyper-growth ones. MyRain has all those characteristics. The most important are a smart, passionate team, and a dynamic, tireless leader in Steele.

So what is the relevance of all this to Acara, IonE, the University of Minnesota, and the State of Minnesota? Why should we care about small-plot farmers in India? There are several ways to answer that:

  • Acara’s impact as a UMN environmental entrepreneurship program comes not only through teaching students, but also through the passionate venture teams like MyRain that go on to make a positive global impact by launching real ventures. We can’t wait to see what they achieve in the next year!
  • IonE is not just about research and outreach, but also about developing real solutions to problems like environmental change, which can have huge implications for small farmers. We must also use our skills and resources to help farmers in the US and globally manage and adapt to changing climate conditions. MyRain is working to ensure products and knowledge are available to farmers to enhance resource efficiency, improve crop yields, and therefore livelihoods.
  • Kate Brauman, IonE Fellow, recently led a study evaluating how crop water productivity — the amount of crop produced per drop of water used — varies across the globe. India is highly water inefficient per unit of crop grown. Drip irrigation is one way to help improve efficiency of agricultural inputs and thus sustainability of farming practices. But with many more farms in the State of Tamil Nadu alone than in all of the US (over 8 million vs. 2.2 million) many farmers don’t have access to products. MyRain is working on improving the distribution system. Although Steele and his team can’t serve all those farmers, every big change starts from an idea and a passionate group of skilled individuals.
  • It’s part of the university’s land grant mission of research, education and outreach to support agriculture. This mission has served MN farmers well, along with farmers around the world. The world is so interconnected now. MN interests are global, and events in other countries can impact us in many ways.
  • In addition to MyRain’s product sales in India, they are also working as consultants with Minnesota businesses to examine market entry for innovative technologies in rural India. While MyRain’s current operations are in India, there are scale mechanisms that can happen at its MN office, along with jobs in the US that can come as MyRain grows.

So there are plenty of big picture reasons for doing this. Steele and Sri are both recent graduates of Minnesota. Our job here at the university is to develop new leaders for the world.

No, Steele has nothing to be ashamed of.

Steele and Paula

Steele and Paula


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Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship at Makerere University Mon, 08 Apr 2013 14:44:16 +0000 Makerere University class, March, 2013

Makerere University class, March, 2013


We had a great Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship course at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. The complete blog entry describing this is on the Eye on Earth blog, here.

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Acara Challenge February 2013 Thu, 21 Feb 2013 02:02:15 +0000 Acara Challenge Feb 8, 2013. Photo credit: Paul Helgeson

Acara Challenge Feb 8, 2013. Photo credit: Paul Helgeson

The Acara Challenge was held February 8 at CoCo Minneapolis, a great place for our student entrepreneurs to hang out for a day. The results are on this page. Congratulations to all the teams, they were terrific!

At Acara, our mission is to influence the lives of others all around the globe through the support of students with world-changing ideas. On February 8th, we were lucky to work with ten talented groups of students who are ready to do just that. Our 2012-2013 Acara Challenge Finals were hosted on February 8 at CoCo Minneapolis in the Historic Grain Exchange, and were met with excitement and huge success.

On the morning of the event, we welcomed guest judges and students to the event; all enthusiastic to share their ideas and improve upon their work. Each group of students gave a fifteen-minute presentation about their business venture and participated in fifteen minutes of critique and dialogue with the judges and other visitors. These presentations were broadcast live on the website, which allowed the speakers to interact with listeners from halfway around the world. It was a very dynamic experience that engaged people with many different experience levels.

Over lunch, judges took the time to review the ventures and their viability, and rank the groups into gold, silver, bronze, or honorable mention categories. After the judges made their final decisions, each group had the opportunity to talk with Fred Rose and Julian Marshall to improve their business plans.

However, the most exiting part of the day was the open house in the evening. Over one hundred guests were met with food and fun, each bringing their own experience with entrepreneurship and social ventures. The visitors had the opportunity to speak to students and look at their posters, as well as network with other individuals and learn more about the Acara program. We also had visits from past Acara successes including Eat for Equity, Perk Health, myRain, and no thro, as well as the newer ventures HSD Sanitation, Feed our Roots, and University-Dinkytown Grocery Store. These participants were excited to pass the torch onto the new generation of Acara graduates that are prepared to make a difference in today’s world.

Each group- past and present- then gave a two-minute pitch to the Acara community about their business, its plans, and its triumphs. The guests were able to experience CoCo’s unusual atmosphere by enjoying beanbag chairs, exercise balls, and ample standing room on different levels of the space. It is difficult to imagine such a space without witnessing it first-hand, but it seemed to receive a warm welcome from our visitors.

The beautiful atrium of the Historic Grain Exchange shook with applause from our crowd of guests following each presentation. It seems as though every person in the room really understood that we were onto something great. We were very thankful to find support from so many community members, and were enthralled to see them having just as much fun as we were. We hope our work can inspire them just as much as their work and help inspires us!

It was excellent to see such a broad range of ideas represented from a diverse group of students. Although this marks the end of another great Acara season, we are now ready to see our past partners continue to thrive and watch our new winners grow and find success.

Written by Dominique Boczek

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J term (CE 5572) course Mon, 21 Jan 2013 16:03:15 +0000 CE 5572 J Term Participants

CE 5572 J Term Participants

The week of Jan 14-18, 18 intrepid students gave up a week of their semester break to spend on the quiet St. Paul campus to work on their social venture idea. It was a terrific class, with a combination of ideas for Africa and India, and right here in Minnesota. The day course is a combination of learning skills and tools to help a budding entrepreneur and a steady stream of outside guests. A number of these ideas will be in the Acara Challenge on Feb 8, those ideas will be posted soon.

The week set up and guests, below:

  • Day 1 – Who Cares? Guests: Brad Lohrding (Logic PD) on design thinking, entrepreneurs Emily Torgrimson (Eat For Equity) and A.J. Schwidder (Upstream Technologies).
  • Day 2 – Do The Math. Guests: Sam Reid (Tact) on social value proposition, entrepreneurs Joy McBrien (Joylery, Fair Anita ) and Simone Ahuja (Blood Orange).
  • Day 3 – Tell Me a Story. Guests: Todd Reubold (IonE) on presenting, entrepreneur Joel Hodroff (Dual Currency).
  • Day 4 – Show Me The Money. Guests: Heather Durenberger (Management consultant) on development and leadership, Brad Brown (Socentia) on social venture funding, Jessica Marshall (Science writer) on crowdfunding; entrepreneurs Brian Peterson (STLF) and Kyle Coolbroth (CoCo).
  • Day 5 – Make it a Habit. Final presentations.
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January course in New Delhi Fri, 11 Jan 2013 02:46:25 +0000 163313_540235789322748_1100213445_n

Currently Julian Marshall and Brian Bell are leading a group of 15 UMN students on a study abroad class in New Delhi. There are a number of blogs following them, including:

This has been a great trip for the students and the teachers, they are learning much about infrastructure, and societal, issues in India.

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Acara Course Introduction for 2012-13 School Year Tue, 11 Sep 2012 16:47:33 +0000

Acara Summer Institute 2012 Wrap Up Dinner

With the start of a new academic year, comes a new group of students interested in the Acara program. What is the Acara program exactly?  That’s a great question, this entry will at least try to give an overview of what it is and why it might be interesting to you.

Like many of the social ventures we support, Acara is a hard organization to define. A simple statement to define what we do would be: Acara is a series of courses and incubation actions to turn the passion of students and mentors into viable social ventures in the US and abroad.

For new students, the courses are the place to start. While one distinguishing factor of Acara is post-course, and even post-graduation, work with students, courses are where the process starts. It’s also worth noting that we expect to have these courses cross listed by January in the following schools: Design, Public Affairs, Public Health and CFANS. That should help you apply them to respective electives in those schools.

The Acara course this Fall 2012 term, CE5571, is full, so your next opportunity is January term.

I don’t want to repeat anything already on the description of the courses, but here is some more background. Generally traditional university students come to us in one of two situations; they have an idea for a social venture, or they are interested but have no specific idea.

If you are in the former category, a good place to start is CE5572: Design for Sustainable Development: Create I. (Offered in January 2012 as CE 5180). This 2013 J term course is intended for students that already have an idea. The course will help you get that idea into a more stable and viable form. The idea can be for anywhere in the world or for a non-profit, for-profit or anything in between.

If you are in the second category, a really good place to start is the CE4011 / CE5011: Design for Sustainable Development: Discovery India course. This is a study abroad program, also to be held in January 2013. It is a great learning opportunity to understand what the problems really are in India. You will meet many experts and spend plenty of time in the field seeing things for yourself. And you will meet students from TERI University that will also be working on the Acara Challenge. These students will be collaborating with the spring course of CE5571. An ideal scenario would be that you then take CE5571 to develop a solution for some of the challenges you saw in January. That’s not a requirement but it would be a good sequence.

The Acara Summer Institute, is a signature event of Acara. It is an intensive mix of field and course work. It has not been offered for credit to date, and is invitation only, but we are working to make it for credit (if desired) in June 2013. That would also mean changing the admission process but generally we will continue to use the Acara Challenge as way to offer scholarships to the best teams to this program.

Why should you take these courses?  That’s of course a pretty individualized question but the general answer is that these course will greatly help you develop a better sense of the increasingly complex world of addressing environmental and social challenges. You can call them social ventures, impact ventures or anything else, but the point is that developing solutions to these global challenges is critical and something many students want to work on. We don’t care what your major is or whether you consider yourself a social entrepreneur or not, these skills you learn will help you be more impactful in whatever you do after university.

Acara Challenge Finals

The Acara Challenge is an opportunity for UMN students, as well a students from select other universities, to review their venture ideas in front of a panel of experts. This is a competitive event with scholarship funding available to winning teams. Funding is intended to help teams pilot their venture ideas. The Challenge finals will be held in early February 2013.

Post Challenge

A major component of the Acara program is the opportunity to continue to get support, even after the courses end, or even after you graduate. For select ventures, Acara remains involved to help incubate and launch the idea. Two examples of this are MyRain , a drip irrigation business in India and Eat For Equity a nonprofit organization in Minneapolis.

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