As an undergraduate, Christopher Holly and his teammates have more experience writing papers and waiting tables than wooing investors, but they caught on quickly.
They won $15,000 at the Baylor New Venture Competition earlier this spring, the result of being willing to adapt, pulling an all-nighter as they rewrote their pitch to address early questions. The prize money paid to incorporate their fledgling business, Zeolytic Technologies Inc., with money left over.
The energy startup offers a zeolite created by Jeffrey Rimer, Ernest J. and Barbara M. Henley Assistant Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, which can maximize catalyst performance as refiners turn crude oil into transportation fuels.
Holly and his partners, Jared Beale, Nick Brannon and Torri Olanski, are part of an innovative program at the University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship, pairing business students with University researchers. The students develop plans to turn a faculty-created technology into a viable business.
The program, a partnership between the Wolff Center and the UH Division of Research, serves several purposes: Instead of textbook case studies, students work with real technologies, devising business plans and competing for start-up funding. Faculty inventors receive help commercializing their research.
"The (Wolff Center) program at UH provides an excellent opportunity to transform ideas and inventions developed in the laboratory into commercial technologies,” Rimer said. “This cannot be accomplished unless you have a team of highly motivated and innovative students pushing their business plan forward, which we do."
There are six major business plan competitions – the Zeolytic Technologies team goes to California for Chapman University’s California Dreamin’ competition in late April – and their popularity is growing.
“They’re catching fire as startups see them as a source of funding,” says Ken Jones, director of undergraduate programs at the Wolff Center, part of the Bauer College of Business.
Most of the competitors are graduate students, but UH sends undergraduates, Jones said. This is the third year UH has paired students with researchers; students launched a business, REEcycle, after last year’s competition tour, during which they won more than $100,000 and the three top awards at the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.
REEcycle now operates out of the new Innovation Center incubation space at UH’s Energy Research Park, using a method developed by Allan Jacobson, Robert A. Welch Chair of Science and director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, to recycle rare earth elements critical for powering cell phones, wind turbines and other clean energy technologies.
REEcycle CEO Casey McNeil was named to Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” list of movers in the energy world, and he and his teammates are again competing in business plan competitions this spring.
Jacobson also created the technologies used by two additional Wolff Center teams – Carla and Purus – competing this spring: Carla is pitching a process to reclaim lanthanum, another rare earth element, from used catalysts, and Purus is working with Jacobson’s technology to remove hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide from natural gas and biogas streams.
Latha Ramchand, dean of the Bauer College of Business, said the success of REEcycle and other student teams validates the unique program.
“Partnering with researchers from across the university has given our students the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship about commercializing technology to intellectual property that has been created right here on campus,” she said. “This is a partnership and collaboration that should make the entire university and city proud.”
Jones said all entrepreneurship students are placed in teams and paired with a technology developed by a UH faculty member, although not all the teams go on to compete. Sometimes, for example, students determine that commercial prospects for a technology aren’t good, or that it needs more work.
The real entrepreneurship work begins once they determine the commercial potential. “Whether it’s zeolites or whatever, technology is pointless unless someone is willing to pay for it,” Jones said.
Holly, who will graduate in May, said he and his teammates are convinced Rimer’s zeolite technology can go the course.
The technology provides a means of selectively tailoring the properties of zeolite materials to improve their performance in applications such as catalysis. “Its key advantages are its versatility – it can be applied to any zeolite structure – and its ability to tune catalyst properties in a way that cannot be matched by conventional zeolite synthesis,” Rimer said, noting that it already has drawn attention from petroleum and petrochemical companies that use zeolites as commercial catalysts.
Holly said the students have formed a corporation and will work out of the Energy Research Park’s Innovation Center.
“We definitely see this going somewhere.”