Startups and students win $500,000 in clean energy challenge

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
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April 10, 2014

A student-led team that designed a turbine for making geothermal energy systems more efficient and a water purification company that eliminates the need for detergent and hot water in commercial laundries took home $100,000 each, part of a total of $500,000 in prizes today in an annual clean energy competition.

Black Pine Engineering Corp. from Michigan State University in East Lansing was awarded a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy as the big winner in the student category. The team developed a carbon-based turbine pump that removes the harmful gases from geothermal steam and lets the system use all its steam for generating energy.

EP Purification Inc., based in Champaign, won $100,000 from Wells Fargo & Co. as the best early-stage company that presented its business model to a panel of judges and others in the challenge, sponsored by the Clean Energy Trust. The company employed licensed technology from the University of Illinois to isolate the ozone molecule and use it as a cleaning agent for laundry, doing away with hot water and chemicals, saving energy and money.

Today’s event is the fourth annual Clean Energy Challenge and this year’s prize money was donated by the Energy Department, Wells Fargo, Boeing Co., United Continental Holdings Inc., Honeywell International Inc.’s UOP unit, Exelon Corp.’s Commonwealth Edison subsidiary and the Clean Energy Trust.

Boeing, United Airlines and UOP Honeywell pooled $50,000 for an aviation energy prize that was given to Spero Energy Inc., a group of students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. They developed a cost-efficient process that converts wood sources into valuable chemicals that can be used in the flavor and fragrance industries immediately, but also has great potential to be used in the production of biofuel for aviation.

A POCKET SMARTPHONE CHARGER

The trust had $155,000 in prize money to dole out and gave $50,000 to Greenlancer Energy Inc., a Detroit-based company that developed an e-commerce platform that takes advantage of growing solar energy market, freelance engineers and installers. Contractors can use this service to find what they need to design and install solar panel systems.

Another $75,000 of the trust’s prize money went to to myPower, a student-led team from Northwestern University. The group of engineers developed a battery charger for smartphones that users can put in their pocket to tap the kinetic energy burned while running or moving around during the day. That extra power can recharge a smartphone for as much as six more hours.

A separate award of $25,000 was given to Meter Genius, another team of Northwestern students. The technology leverages smart meter data to help consumers reduce their energy use. That prize was funded by Chicago real estate developer McCaffery Interests Inc.

Go Electric Inc. was awarded $20,000 in a special prize from ComEd for female entrepreneurship; its CEO is Lisa Laughner. Her Anderson, Ind.,-based company developed technology that maintains the supply of electricity seamlessly in the event of a shutdown on the power grid. The trust kicked in some of its money to boost her prize to a total of $50,000.

Five other student groups each received $10,000.

A total of 17 student finalists and early-stage companies from the Midwest made fast-pitch presentations to a panel of judges, investors and other interested members of the clean tech community at Venue Six10 in the South Loop. The selected finalists were groomed for the competition by mentors affiliated with the trust.

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