Environmental challenge inspires students to innovate

The new sound of student activism is not a protest, it's a pitch. Actually, a clamoring symphony of pitches.

In a cavernous old hangar at Seattle’s Magnuson Park, student teams from across the University of Washington and other state schools herald their inventions of clean, green technologies to roving investor-judges who will decide their fate in the second annual UW Environmental Innovation Challenge. There is a smart phone app that delivers real-time fuel economy projections for one’s car, a power strip that restricts energy flow to idle household appliances, LED lighting suitable for cultivating nursery plants, a mobile bioreactor that creates synthetic fuel from wood chips.

Then there’s grand-prize-winning EnVitrum. If you don’t believe a better brick can change the world, you haven’t met Renuka Prabhakar and Grant Marchelli. After learning that 77 percent of “recycled” glass actually ends up in a landfill, the two UW engineering students invented a way to convert waste glass into construction-grade bricks that are cheaper, stronger and faster to produce than standard masonry. They even support plant growth and cool buildings by natural evaporation.

“My whole reason for returning to school was to get involved with environmental technologies,” says Prabhakar, who left a 15-year career in small-business management to get her B.S.M.E. “I didn’t expect the opportunity to come so soon.”

Or so independently. That’s the intent of EIC: to catalyze and coalesce student ideas and ideals into action—to inspire entrepreneurial solutions to the world’s intractable environmental challenges.

Students love competitions that give them a structure and a deadline to galvanize their plans, too. This year’s UW Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition—a contest hosted by the UW’s Foster School of Business and the School of Public Health to fight world poverty through small business ventures—drew 161 entrants from the UW and 36 countries. The judges’ pick was Nuru Light, a company created by a team of engineers, an American med student and a Rwandan business student who developed a portable, rechargeable LED lighting system for central African homes—a cheaper, healthier, brighter alternative to kerosene lamps.

According to Loretta Little, managing director at WRF Capital and a judge at both EIC and GSEC, these competitions are inspirational and practical—an effective collaboration of people from the often disparate worlds of business, engineering, health sciences, environment, law, international studies and public administration. Students are mentored and judged by scores of entrepreneurs, investors and executives from Microsoft, Starbucks, the Gates Foundation, the UW Center for Commercialization and many others.

The result is an indelible student experience. Or even a launching pad. Four prizewinners from last year’s EIC are currently commercializing their green technologies. Six recent GSEC awardees are still in the business of alleviating poverty in Uganda, India, Zimbabwe, Panama, Mozambique and Nicaragua. Meanwhile, Nuru Light is selling its first order of 10,000 lights, and EnVitrum is racing to patent its eco-bricks and license the technology to manufacturers. Idealism is on the march—and on the market.

Pictured at top: Grant Marchelli shows how plant growth provides natural cooling for buildings using EnVitrum’s “recycled” construction-grade bricks.