March 30, 2012

Bigger, bolder, greener: The 2012 UW Environmental Innovation Challenge (with video)

News and Information

Daniel Schwartz, UW professor and chair of chemical engineering, kicked off the fourth annual UW Environmental Innovation Challenge, held Thursday at Seattle Center, by urging students to tap their inner “pitch-meisters.”

The students did not disappoint. A presenter sporting a tie and dress shoes rolled a solar-powered electric bike on stage. Another carried a hunk of rubber and mustered the enthusiasm of a used-car salesman to pitch an idea for rubber lane dividers. One maker of a smartphone-controlled LED promised office workers everywhere could use it as “a direct replacement for the buzzing, flickering, hated fluorescent tube.”

Members of the team Green Innovative Safety Technologies (GIST), won first prize and $10,000 for developing a recycled alternative to concrete highway jersey barriers.

University of Washington

Members of the team Green Innovative Safety Technologies (GIST), won first prize and $10,000 for developing a recycled alternative to concrete highway jersey barriers.

“The students are tackling bigger problems, and I think theyre being fearless about it,” said Connie Bourassa-Shaw, director of the UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “When you actually have to build a prototype, its an incredibly difficult process.”

This years competition, put on by the Foster School of Business in partnership with the College of Engineering and the College of the Environment, was the largest ever, with 32 applicants. For the first time the organizers held a screening round to winnow the field to the final 23 presenters.

“This is about the right size,” Bourassa-Shaw said. “You want the judges to see the prototypes, to engage with the students and to provide some feedback.”

The College of Engineering provided $25,000 in prototype funding for UW teams, and Washington Research Foundation donated $5,000 to fund prototypes for non-UW entrants. The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship held a fall quarter course and optional winter-quarter resource nights.

The teams included 98 students split about evenly between undergraduates and graduates, from five colleges and universities. Each team had to be led by students from a Pacific Northwest institution.  This year’s field included the first out-of-state team, from the Oregon Institute of Technology.

The grand prize of $10,000, from the UWs Center for Commercialization, went to Green Innovative Safety Technologies (GIST), the highway lane dividers made of recycled rubber tires. Team members are UW undergraduates Hin Kei Wong in mechanical engineering, Lloyd Pasion in civil and environmental engineering and Ricky Holm in business; and civil and environmental engineering graduate student Jessica Tanumihardja.

Second prize went to Barrels of Hope, billed as a safe, affordable and environmentally friendly house built from parts that fit inside a rain barrel, to be used in emergency situations. The four UW business graduate students and one civil and environmental engineering undergraduate claimed the $5,000 prize from Puget Sound Energy.

Many other teams will pursue their ideas, even if they didn’t win. EcoSel, an eBay for land management and conservation, is conducting a pilot project on the UW campus. The team for Scout Aviations unmanned drone aircraft, designed to perform inspections on wind-energy turbines, is talking to a major wind turbine supplier who is a former employer of one of the members. Vampp has submitted an app to the Apple store that consumers could buy to tame the so-called “vampire appliances” that consume power even while in sleep mode.

Last year, Schwartz advised a graduate student team, Carbon Cultures, that turns forestry waste into fertilizer; this year he advised an undergraduate team, OmniOff, which developed a nontoxic alternative to Teflon nonstick coatings.

This year was an experiment, Schwartz said, on how to offer this experience to more students.

“I need to figure out how to make it scalable, to offer it to maybe a quarter to a half of our students as an alternative to our traditional design coursework,” he said.  To do that, Schwartz is considering establishing an alumni innovation fund, or providing graduate students with time to advise undergraduate student teams.

Schwartz’s team, OmniOff, won an honorable mention and a $2,500 prize. The other two honorable mentions went to UrbanHarvest, which proposes to grow hydroponic vegetables on commercial buildings rooftops; and LumiSands, which developed a nanoparticle-based coating to improve the quality of LED light.

More than 100 judges volunteered their time. Teams are judged on the quality of their prototype and pitch, as well as their potential environmental impact.

“Its a great opportunity for the students to showcase their ideas, and its wonderful for the investor and the business community to learn about them,” said judge Susannah Malarkey, executive director of the Technology Alliance. “The fact that theyre required to have a prototype is fabulous.”

For many teams, this is just one venue to pitch their idea. LionTail Cycles founder Henry Kellogg, a senior in mechanical engineering, has already sold a few of his solar-powered electric bike conversion kits. His team plans to travel to California in April for CalTechs First Look West competition, and to enter the UWs Business Plan Competition in May.

“I love this competition,” said UW alumnus Daniel Rossi, executive director of the Northwest Entrepreneur Network, whose team placed second the 2009 competition. “It forces us to find a hole in the clean-tech market, and plug it with a solution.”