Entrepreneurs at UW Business Plan Competition Show Drive for Cleantech, Biotech, High Tech

4/29/10Follow @xconomy

The University of Washington’s president, Mark Emmert, has been talking about making the state’s biggest institution of higher education an “entrepreneurial university.” While Emmert is on his way out, the startup fire was still burning bright yesterday when I was on campus to serve as a judge for the UW’s 13th annual Business Plan Competition.

There were 32 teams assembled at the Husky Union Ballroom with a rich variety of ideas for wireless technology, consumer goods, media, biotech, and cleantech businesses. These young people looked the part, with visual aids and prototypes at the ready. They were eager to make eye contact, hand out cards, and deliver the proverbial firm handshake. Beyond the essential body language, I found almost all of the teams I questioned were ready to provide specific answers about the market they were addressing, how their technology differs from their competitors, why customers would want it, and how this can become profitable. And these aspiring entrepreneurs were truly from all over the world, and that diverse experience showed.

Here are snapshots of four companies that struck me as interesting. You can see a list of the Sweet 16 finalists here.

Envitrum. This company from UW won the grand prize at the UW’s Environmental Innovation Challenge earlier this spring. It turns crushed glass from a landfill or recycling center and packs it into a renewable brick building material. These bricks made from crushed glass can be manufactured at large scale for 10-15 cents each, compared with 20 to 25 cents for a conventional red brick, says Renuka Prabhakar, co-founder and CEO. The EnVitrum bricks hold heat better than conventional bricks, and they help builders rack up points toward getting their buildings stamped with the precious LEED certification for green buildings, she added.

EnVitrum will have to pass a key test in getting ASTM certification to show it has all the right properties. I asked Prabhakar how these bricks might hold up in an earthquake. That will depend more on the mortar that holds the bricks together, says Prabhakar, a mechanical engineering student. If it can pass the material certification standards, the EnVitrum bricks could be on the market within a year, she says.

Mobee Sign. Mobile phones are truly global devices now, but e-commerce isn’t taking off everywhere. In the Middle East and Northern Africa, many merchants are set up to use PayPal to collect payment for their goods and services, but consumers are afraid to hand over their credit card online, says Omar Nesh Nash, a co-founder of this company from Seattle University.

So Mobee Sign is developing a way for consumers to buy stuff online, through their mobile phone, without having to enter their credit card. The merchant has to get … Next Page »

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