Student Teams Working on Environmental Innovation Inspire

You can’t help but be inspired after spending a couple of hours with the 20 Northwest student teams at the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge.

Despite the shortcomings of our education system at multiple levels, rising tuition, and laments about diminishing American technological competitiveness, here is a group of talented, motivated young people thinking hard about solutions to real global problems.

At least a quarter of the teams are working on problems associated with water. How to conserve it, more efficiently desalinate it, disinfect it for reuse in irrigation, generate energy from it, and keep pollutants out of it.

Other teams are developing products to improve life in poor countries: a cheap mill to save women in Gambia from the daily pounding of grain, which keeps them out of school and in poverty; an innovative solar-powered light and USB charger to replace dirty, costly, and dangerous kerosene lanterns; a bio-briquette maker for home use in India where the consumption of wood for cooking fuel is leading to deforestation.

The event is mainly an exercise, with winners splitting $22,500 in prizes. “This is a safe environment. They’re not mortgaging their houses yet,” UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship director Connie Bourassa-Shaw says. Still, two or three of the 20 teams have ideas that could actually get funded, in the opinion of one venture capitalist there.

Kirk Washington, a partner in Yaletown Venture Partners‘ Seattle office, doesn’t want to say which ones exactly—“competitive advantage,” he says with a chuckle—but notes that the problems the students are attacking are “quite timely.”

“Not only are those applications potentially far-reaching…it’s the capital efficiency to be able to take advantage of existing infrastructure, so you’re not building some big plant for hundreds of millions of dollars,” he says.

The winner of the event—as determined by the 115 judges who viewed two-minute presentations and then interacted with the 20 teams—is PolyDrop, and its business model fits Washington’s description.

The team is targeting electrostatic charge dissipation for advanced carbon fiber materials using a conductive polymer developed in the lab of UW chemical engineering professor Danilo Pozzo. The polymer, explains PolyDrop team member and chemical engineering student Heather Milligan, can be added in small quantities to existing paints, transforming them into a light-weight alternative to metal-based conductive coatings.

This could be particularly useful for aircraft and vehicles built from carbon fiber reinforced composites, which build up static charges that can scramble their electronics, and for which current conductive coatings are not viable, the team asserts.

PolyDrop was on the technologically advanced end of the spectrum. Other teams, such as Earth’s Elegance, were developing businesses around happy accidents.

Sophie Michele had a stack of old magazines on a work table in a design class at Bellevue College. Another student bumped the table, spilling a solution on the magazines, giving them a marbled, stone-like appearance. Sandwiched between two pieces of glass, the erstwhile magazines could be a lighter, cheaper, and less environmentally destructive replacement for tiles made of mined natural stone.

The students face long odds in turning their ideas into viable businesses—as would any entrepreneur. But the good thing about exercises like this is that students get a glimpse of what it takes, and will hopefully enter Seattle’s entrepreneurial ecosystem with eyes open.

“I think they’ll always be entrepreneurial, and they’ll be looking at opportunities,” says Bourassa-Shaw. “My hope is they’ll know what to do with one once they see it. That’s the part that’s hard, and a lot of people don’t get that. How do you marshal resources? How do you gain support? How do you find a champion?”

2013 UW Environmental Innovation Challenge results:

Winner of the $10,000 grand prize: PolyDrop (UW)

Runner up ($5,000): Pure Blue Technologies (UW)

Honorable mention ($2,500 each): EcoMembrane (UW); Sunscroll (Western Washington University); Upcycle (UW)

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