ANN ARBOR — A team of Wayne State University graduate students and their unique energy-harvesting technology has won the $50,000 first prize in the Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge, judges announced Friday.
The annual challenge, established by the University of Michigan and DTE Energy, encourages students from Michigan colleges and universities to grow clean-energy solutions into thriving businesses.
Bob Lutz, retired vice chairman of General Motors, spoke at the awards ceremony at UM. He encouraged students to innovate, in the purest sense of the word.
“Sometimes the best innovation is the simplest and most cost effective,” Lutz said. “You have to make sure the drive to innovate doesn’t provide answers to questions nobody asked.”
He recalled his 1937 MG with hydraulic lifts at each wheel that let him jack the car up at the press of a button.
“It was innovative, it was cute, but it had zero customer value,” Lutz said. “When you argue you have to have a point, and when you innovate you have to add value. That’s what you should be thinking about as you take the next steps in this program.”
The first place team Piezo PowerTech developed a device that can generate electricity from vibrations — mechanical energy that would otherwise be wasted. While the technology has broad applications, the team is focusing first on the tire pressure sensor market. The team’s technology could extend the lifetime of these sensors and eliminate waste from dead batteries.
Said Piezo PowerTech team member Yating Hu, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering at Wayne State: “We enjoyed this competition and learned a lot from it. Now it is time for us to push our business to a higher level.”
She and her co-founders Junhui Zhao and Hongen Tu, also doctoral students at Wayne State, will use the money to improve their prototype and continue to pitch their product to potential manufactures.
UM team PicoSpray won second place and $20,000 for developing a technique for cleaner small engines for motorcycles, lawnmowers and mopeds.
“All of the teams participating in the challenge this year have done a tremendous job in moving their clean energy business ideas forward,” said Doug Neal, executive director of the UM College of Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship. “It is exciting to see teams from all over the state of Michigan working together, learning together and pushing each other to create the next cohort of clean energy entrepreneurs that will have a significant impact on our economy and the nation.”
This year, for the first time, this competition is part of a national effort through President Obama’s Startup America campaign. Piezo PowerTech advances to a regional competition in the spring, and could eventually have a shot at a national grand prize in Washington, D.C. this summer.
Other finalists were: UM team M-Wrap, which is making a non-electric blanket to prevent hypothermia in premature infants; and UM team Arbor Solar Technology, which has devised an energy-efficient lighting scheme that uses mirrors to pipe in sunlight as a complement to cutting-edge LEDs. These two finalists, and nine other teams, received $5,000 category and special achievement prizes. A total of 13 prizes were awarded.
This year, each team competed for the full six months of the challenge and received assistance in refining their business model as well as mentoring and discussion opportunities with venture capital and angel investors. The judging was done by a panel of venture capitalists, members of the academic and business communities, and experienced entrepreneurs. Important judging criteria included market need, product definition, cost and revenue forecast, communication strategy and go-to-market plan.
Clean Energy Venture Challenge sponsors include DTE Energy, MASCO Corp. Foundation, The Kresege Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, Google, UBS Investment Bank, Eisbrenner Public Relations, the University of Michigan, Western Michigan University, Wayne State University, Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University. Partners include the University of Michigan’s Ross Energy Club, Energy Institute, Center for Entrepreneurship and MPowered.