Student entrepreneurs seek top honors for their inventions

Student entrepreneurs will enter the finals of two contests offering big payoffs this week: the Clean Energy Challenge in Chicago and the Saint-Gobain Student Design Competition on campus.

Two teams from Case Western Reserve University are vying for $150,000 in prize money and a chance to win more at the third annual Clean Energy Challenge, to be held in Chicago Thursday.


One team, electric-bicycle designers EcoSpinners, also is among three remaining contestants in this year’s Saint-Gobain Student Design Competition at Case Western Reserve, which will award a total of $15,000 Tuesday.

EcoSpinners’ bicycle can assist riders up hills or as they tire, over a range of about 100 miles with zero emissions, said team leader Jean Zhao, a third-year chemical engineering major.

“It will probably get 50 miles with no pedaling—more at low speed—but the point of the bike is to pedal,” Zhao said. “We want to enable older cyclists to keep on pedaling and to encourage more commuters.”

Zhao spent the last four years out of school, helping develop a flexible polymer lithium-ion phosphate battery that is safer and lasts longer than standard lithium cobalt batteries. The battery can be sized according to power need and shaped to the bike.

To add range, there is a fuel cell that uses a liquid solution of hydrogen peroxide and sodium borohydride fuel and doesn’t need expensive platinum catalysts to convert energy.

Zhao and teammate Justin Einstein, who is earning his master’s degree in engineering and management, expect the bike will sell for about $2,000.

The fuel will cost a few dollars per 100-mile trip (with pedaling). Fuel-cell waste goes back into the bottle where it can be regenerated or swapped for a ready-to-use bottle of fuel from a store. A battery charge would cost less than $1.

NanoHarv Technologies

Justin Isaacs, a master’s student in the Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Program (STEP), and Aditya Rengaswamy, a BS/MS student in accounting, will present NanoHarv Technologies, a system for harvesting and dewatering microalgae for clean energy or other uses, in Chicago.

“Any body of water that has excess nutrients will more than likely suffer from algae blooms in their ponds and lakes each fall,” said Isaacs, who studied the plants for three years prior to enrolling here. “This is a way to use the biomass.”

Ponds on golf courses and farms alone present more than a half million acres of water across the U.S. that suffer from algae blooms, he explained. NanoHarv’s solution is to separate the tiny plants from water and concentrate the biomass in a less costly and less energy-intensive way than current technologies allow.

Algae brings a lot of water with it when it’s skimmed off a pond—usually less than 2 percent solids, too diluted to be useful. NanoHarv’s process uses nanoparticles that look spiderlike, with polymeric tendrils reaching out from a coated iron core, to grab onto microalgae. Their surfaces have opposite charges that attract.

Next, magnetic separators, commonly used in the auto industry to separate fine metal filings from fluids pull the nanoparticles and algae from the water, concentrating the plants. After the nanoparticles are removed for recycling, the algae can be processed into oil, burned in a co-firing process to generate electricity, dried and used for fertilizer, or materials used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics can be extracted.

The team believes the technology eventually could be used to help reduce harmful algae blooms that occur in Lake Erie and threaten drinking water supplies annually, and also prevent the massive dead zones that occur when the algae dies and consumes oxygen as it rots. They estimate the cost to clean an acre of water will be $500.


In the Saint-Gobain contest, last year’s second-place finishers, Sprav, return this year with a simpler and more affordable water-saving shower data monitor.

The device screws in place between the showerhead and wall pipe. Water flow turns a turbine inside that measures water usage and temperature. It also powers the device that calculates total cost of the shower, including water, energy and sewage fees. The information is relayed wirelessly to the owner’s smartphone or tablet.

While in the shower, light-emitting diodes in the device emit different colors and patterns, reflecting current water and energy usage. To help users cut their shower bills, Sprav collects data from the first seven showers. Afterward, a green light turns on with the water and changes to blue then yellow then red when shower time reaches 75 percent of the average usage, indicating it’s time to get out.

The idea is to slowly coach users to cut back on water usage or shower time. Average usage is constantly updated. The lights will continue to turn red more quickly with each shower until usage drops below 15 gallons, which is considered a non-wasteful shower. Users also can set customized goals for temperature, volume or time.

“The initial price of the first generation will be slightly higher than $60. In a few years we will see it reach $60,” said Craig Lewis, a third-year macromolecular science and engineering student who handles the business end of the effort. “At either price, for the average family of four, it will pay for itself in four months.”

Electrical engineering third-years Andrew Hennessey and Marcel Dejean developed the software and hardware, and mechanical engineering third-year Claude Valle helped design the outside case and manufactured prototypes. Andrew Schad, a senior industrial design student at Cleveland Institute of Art, designed the look of the device and promotional art.

Team Hydrate

Team Hydrate, a newcomer to the Saint-Gobain competition, has developed a prototype wristband to inform the user if they are maintaining healthy fluid levels. The band holds five sensors that monitor air temperature and humidity, heart rate, skin temperature and how well a tiny electrical current flows over the skin.

“All together, they tell the wearer if he is dehydrating, in real time,” said Devin Miller, who has a degree in electrical engineering and Chinese and is earning his law degree and MBA at Case Western Reserve. Miller made the prototype, tested and collected data and did some of the patent work.

The 2000 death of All-Pro NFL lineman Korey Stringer put a face on the widespread problem of athletes dehydrating and overheating. Annually, 10,000 high-school athletes suffer from heat-related illness that requires medical attention.

The band can help wearers know when to drink fluids, starting before a workout or strenuous job, through the effort and afterward. A lack of fluids can cause loss of performance, impaired judgment and progress to dizziness, cramps, headaches, nausea, collapse and heatstroke—which can be fatal.

All wearers have to do is watch the water drops outlined on the band. As the sensors detect water loss in the body, the drops empty.

Alex Mummert, a senior at the CIA, designed the wristband and presentations. Shawn Rupp, a fourth-year in macromolecular science and engineering at CWRU, did the materials research.

Faculty, technical, business and alumni advisers and mentors, as well as think[ box ], Blackstone LaunchPad and more, have supported the teams in building their products, business plans and presentations.

The finals of the Saint-Gobain competition are open to the campus and public in Nord Hall 310, beginning at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Each team will make a 10-minute presentation. The winning team will receive $9,000, second place $4,000 and third place $2,000.

In Chicago, EcoSpinners and NanoHarv will go up against teams from nine other Midwestern colleges. The winner will receive a $100,000 Student Challenge prize from the U.S. Department of Energy and be eligible for the $50,000 McCaffery Interests commercialization award. In June, the winner will go to the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, sponsored by The Department of Energy, to compete for another $100,000 grand prize.