Students compete to find clean-tech solutions to environmental problems
By Ben Raker, Alaska Airlines Magazine, and Halley Knigge, Alaska Airlines
A window that harnesses solar energy and sends electricity down its edge to feed the power grid; a hair dye with gold particles that limits the need for reapplications and reduces the chemicals sent down drains; road barriers that use old tires otherwise destined to be burned or sent to landfills—these are among the many concepts developed by entrepreneurial student teams in an annual competition hosted by the University of Washington Foster School of Business.
The 7-year-old competition is operating for the first time this year as the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge, in honor of the airline’s commitment to a decade of event sponsorship. The challenge calls for each team to define an environmental problem, find a solution to the problem, and present the market opportunity and impact potential of their solution, along with a working prototype.
“We are thrilled that it’s Alaska Airlines sponsoring this competition as a Seattle-based company working hard to reduce its environmental footprint,” says Connie Bourassa-Shaw, who oversees the challenge as director of the Foster School’s Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship.
Students from colleges and universities throughout the Northwest are encouraged to apply; 40 teams did so this year. Of these teams, 22 were selected for Demo Day on April 2 at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall. On this day, students pitch to more than 150 judges from the local environmental and entrepreneurial communities, receiving feedback on the viability of their idea and suggestions on how to improve it. In 2015, the competition was awarding $37,500 in total prizes from a variety of sponsors, including $15,000 for the team that wins the Grand Prize.
“When we were up on stage, I couldn’t even think straight,” says Daniel Parrish, a University of Washington student whose team FireBee surprised everyone by taking both grand prize and a clean energy prize.
FireBee is a portable generator that works off of the energy of cook stoves to provide power to charge cell phones and other devices in third world countries.
Parrish, and teammates and fellow students Aaron Owen and Ryan Ahearn say they hope to use their winnings – $20,000 in total – to keep developing their product and improve lives “off the grid.” To fellow innovators who think they might want to enter a future year’s challenge, they say “go for it.”
“If you think you want to be here, you should be here,” says Owen. “Everyone is so excited and passionate, you feed off of that energy.”
Second-place winner Hook would enable consumers to automate their existing everyday appliances – lamps, blinds, etc. – saving money and waste.
“The idea is make dumb smarter, and make the cost lower,” says Anigo, one of the four-member team made up of two UW students and two advisors. They already have a prototype, and plan to use their winnings – $10,000 – to begin manufacturing. For the rest of the funding, they’ll turn to crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. Updates can be found at gethook.io.
Past years’ winners have gone on to launch companies, win grants and earn equity funding. Team HydroSense won the inaugural challenge in 2009 for a water-use-monitoring technology, launched a startup and was acquired by the tech company Belkin.
Bourassa-Shaw says that judges at the challenge’s final presentations have repeatedly called the day they come to the event their “most hopeful day of the year.”
“You really want to feel that the generation coming out of college will be contributing to addressing environmental problems,” says Bourassa-Shaw. “These students have a passion for the environment and for innovation.”
For more information, visit eic.washington.edu.
April 22 is Earth Day, a worldwide event involving more than 22,000 organizations in 192 countries. According to the Earth Day Network, more than 1 billion people participate in activities each year. Visit earthday.org.