UW Team “FireBee” a Double Winner in 2015 Innovation Competition


FireBee, a student team at the University of Washington, won both the $15,000 Grand Prize and the $5,000 Clean Energy Prize yesterday evening in the 2015 Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge. FireBee has developed an alternative energy source for people who live off the grid. The portable thermoelectric generator turns third-world cooking fires into personal power stations for charging small electronics and other low-power uses.

Hook (University of Washington) won the $10,000 Second Place Prize for a home automation hub that allows customers to convert existing home devices to smart gadgets. Smartphone-controlled on-off switches decrease energy consumption and improve home safety, and converting older appliances reduces the amount of electronics that end up in landfills.

$2,500 Honorable Mentions went to three teams:

EcoStream (University of Washington) builds awareness and lifelong habits to conserve water. The team’s sensing technology monitors household energy usage or the consumption of individual appliances. Water utilities could use the devices to encourage behavior change.

Bettery (University of Washington Tacoma) has entered the market with its retail kiosk for battery exchanges, and has devised a subscription service that gives consumers unlimited access to rechargeable batteries.

Ion Informatics (University of Washington) is developing a technology that helps give larger batteries a second life. It analyzes batteries in place, for example in an EV, to determine their highest value applications after they’re replaced with new batteries.

The 2014 EIC Grand Prize Winner, Korvata, returned to the stage in the “Where Are They Now?” part of the awards ceremony. The team developed an alternative to the environmentally harmful nitrous oxide used as a propellant in whipped cream. Korvata is another UW team.

“The prize was the first money in our company,” Korvata cofounder Chris Metcalf recalls. “A year later we have a nearly inked deal with one of the biggest food manufacturers in the world.”

FireBee has already topped their predecessor’s time-to-market. During FireBee’s pitch presentation they invited the owner of an Ethiopian stove manufacturer to come on stage and sign the team’s first purchase order.

Three of the non-winning teams are particularly intriguing to me and worthy of mention here. SwitchPoint Solutions has a complete working prototype for using rooftop solar thermal to offset the electricity used by commercial HVAC units, providing either heating or cooling as needed, even after sunset. Protium Innovations is working on small-scale methods of using excess wind energy to compress hydrogen, which can then be used to generate electricity or to run H2-powered vehicles. PowerNode has developed a power monitoring system for industrial machinery, reducing O&M costs through early failure detection and predictive maintenance.

Now in its sixth year, the Environmental Innovation Challenge focuses on the development of prototypes that solve today’s biggest environmental problems and have market potential. Forty teams applied to the Environmental Innovation Challenge and 22 teams, with a total of 100 students, were selected to compete for $37,500 in prizes. In addition to prize money, some teams received a total of $58,700 in prototype funding along the way. In this final stage of the competition, 162 judges reviewed business plans, heard presentations, and saw prototype demonstrations before choosing the winners.

Congratulations on all 22 teams for a job well done!

More on cleantech startups.

The author, Denis Du Bois, served as a volunteer judge for the EIC. He also volunteers to give one-on-one coaching for teams in the Business Plan Competition, a related program of the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Washington Michael G. Foster School of Business. He also blogs about sustainable energy at EnergyPriorities.com and is a clean energy marketing strategist by profession.

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