Tag Archives: environmental innovation

The paradox of reduce-reuse-recycle

2011 EIC Grand Prize Winner Voltaic shows off their electric vehicle drive train

2011 EIC Grand Prize Winner Voltaic shows off its electric vehicle drive train

Guest post by Daniel Schwartz, Chair, UW Department of Chemical Engineering

When I think Cleantech, my mind goes straight to the triangular logo on my waste container at work: “reduce, reuse, recycle.”  These three words are central to most enduring cleantech innovations, though sometimes in paradoxical ways.  “Reduce” is the most prone to paradox, since reducing one thing generally happens by increasing another. Let’s explore this “reduce” paradox via two well-known examples in that space.

In recent years, Washington has done a good job of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. Today, the average American emits 41% more greenhouse gas than the average Washingtonian (2012 State Energy Strategy report). We reduced our emissions by increasing our reliance on hydropower. Here’s where the “reduce” paradox comes in. Increases in hydropower have led to fewer salmon in our waters. Thinking long term, if we want to grow our economy and further reduce our emissions while avoiding consequences like this, we’ll need major innovations in the cost and performance of solar energy and grid-scale batteries. And we’ll need to make sure those innovations don’t lead to a depleted Earth.

The same “increase-to-reduce” paradox holds in transportation. Hybrid and all-electric cars reduce emissions by increasing efficiency. The 787 Dreamliner reduces its fuel use, in part, by adopting the “more electric-aircraft” approach. Innovations in transportation electrification are largely tied to electrochemical energy storage and conversion (batteries, super-capacitors, and fuel cells) as well as control systems that enable vehicle-scale “grids” to operate reliably on their own and when plugged into a utility’s grid. Transportation electrification is currently going through painful growing pains. Have no doubt, we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg in transportation electrification, but as transportation electrification increases, we need to use foresight to adapt our current electrical infrastructure, or we’ll break it.

My colleagues at the UW Institute for Molecular Engineering and Science are among the leaders charting a sustainable energy pathway that balances technical innovation with the economic and social dimensions of scalable energy. Students, too, are looking at the paradoxes – the potential Achilles heels of cleantech – and finding potential for enduring innovations. I am looking forward to seeing how students at the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge apply their understanding of cleantech and “reduce, reuse, recycle” – paradoxes and all—  to innovations that will improve our world.

Challenges drive environmental innovation

Why are “challenges” so crucial in driving innovation?  We asked Connie Bourassa-Shaw, the director of UW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship about this, specifically in relation to the Center’s annual Environmental Innovation Challenge.  Here’s what she had to say:

We launched the Environmental Innovation Challenge in 2009 because we believe that “challenges” drive innovation, and we were looking to engage smart, passionate students in the quest to produce real, market-conscious solutions to environmental problems.  My story at the time was the Solar Car Challenge, which has been going on for the last decade or so. Most people know it. But the point is that we’re still not driving solar cars. That’s what I didn’t want to see. I wanted to see market results with the EIC.

So we narrowed it down to this: Tell me what the environmental problem is, tell me about your solution, show me that it works, tell me about the market opportunity, and demonstrate the potential for impact. Now, what we’re asking students to do is hard. Designing and building a prototype is hard. Getting it to work is even harder.  And we’re not interested in the $5,000 solution to the $500 problem. It’s got to be appropriate technology, especially when you’re looking at technologies targeted for third-world countries.

The Challenge is run by CIE (which is in the Foster School of Business), in partnership with the College of Engineering and the College of the Environment. We want cross-disciplinary teams–from undergrads to PhD students. We start the process with a fall quarter class–the Environmental Innovation Practicum. Those students walk through the process of thinking about and planning for the Challenge, which happens late March or early April. We get $25,000 from the College of Engineering to provide small grants ($500 to $5,000, but generally under $2,000) to teams that need prototype funding. We give all the money away.

This year (2012) GIST won the $10,000 grand prize. Barrels of Hope and Urban Harvest won prizes as well–and both went on to our annual Business Plan Competition, which follows the Challenge. In fact, about half of the EIC teams go on to do the BPC.

What happens is really interesting–students get caught up in the excitement of thinking about making this a real company. Many are very serious.

The EIC is full of great stories, and the “challenge” process itself is the key.

UW environmental innovation wows judges

Judges were supposed to walk into the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall on March 29, pick up their folders and grab a seat. But the 23 prototypes were simply irresistible.

They caught your eye the minute you walked into the room for the 2012 University of Washington Environmental Innovation Challenge. A bicycle with the electric assist that could transport up to 200 pounds of cargo. Solar windows that would continue to operate even if cracked or broken. The new cooking surface that was nonstick and nontoxic with no coating at all. A tiny helicopter drone that could be used to inspect remote wind turbines. The highway jersey barrier made of recycled tires that were not only cheaper to produce but could also lessen the impact of a direct automotive hit. The earth-bag house that can be built quickly and safely after a natural disaster—and still withstand a category 4 hurricane.

The Environmental Innovation Challenge, managed by the Foster School Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (in partnership with the UW colleges of engineering and environment), is focused on student-led solutions to environmental problems. More than 120 judges from Seattle’s environmental and entrepreneurial communities evaluated student teams from colleges and universities across Washington on three criteria:

  • a working prototype, designed and built by the team
  • an investor pitch, paired with a solid understanding of the  market opportunity
  • the solution’s potential for impact

Judge Kelly Ogilvie, former president and CEO of Blue Marble Energy, was impressed by the creativity. “People are worried about the economy, but look around. This is cool stuff, and a lot of these concepts have legs.” David Allen, executive VP of McKinstry, agreed. “Every one of these ideas is pushing the green innovation needle forward,” he said. Seattle entrepreneur and Concur CEO Steve Singh was more impressed by how robust the prototypes were. “This is amazing,” he said. “Not one of these teams spent more than $3,000.”

The $10,000 grand-prize-winning team was Green Innovation Safety Technologies (GIST), which has one goal in mind: to eliminate the vast number of auto and truck tires plugging up US landfills. GIST’s jersey barriers use the equivalent of 240 tires (5,000 pounds of rubber mulch) each and have the added benefit, in comparison with concrete barriers, of increasing safety, reducing noise and enhancing water run-off. The team is composed of UW business and engineering undergraduate and PhD students.

See full list of all 5 winning teams and videos.

Learn more about the world of start-ups via the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.