The competition was certainly daunting when a group of four undergraduates from UH’s Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship met their opponents at their first business plan competition at Baylor last spring: there were teams from Harvard, Yale and MIT, among others, and all their members were graduate students.
Members of REEcycle had a secret weapon. Although they were selling an innovative technology, their real advantage was the support of their mentors and professors at the C. T. Bauer College of Business, which is ranked the nation’s No. 2 school for undergraduate entrepreneurs (2014).
REEcycle won first place at Baylor’s New Venture Competition, later repeating the feat in the Department of Energy’s (DOE) regional Clean Energy Business Plan Competition at the California Institute of Technology. They then won first place at the national DOE contest in Washington, D.C. (where the team took all three of the top prizes).
The REEcycle business plan and startup is based on a technology developed by Allan Jacobson, Robert A. Welch Chair of Science and director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, who developed a way to extract rare earth elements from electronic waste. Rare earth elements are used in cell phones, computer hard drives, catalytic converters, wind power generators, energy efficient lighting and other “green” technologies.
Rare earth elements are generally not found in high concentrations, making it difficult to extract them economically. China controls more than 90 percent of the world’s supply, and Jacobson became interested in developing a way to recycle these after reading DOE reports about critical materials for future energy use. Jacobson discovered a chemical reaction that can extract the rare earth elements neodymium and dysprosium from discarded electronic waste.
Now, REEcycle is no longer an academic exercise. It’s part of Real Life 101.
Team members Casey McNeil and Cassandra Hoang graduated in May with degrees in entrepreneurship; team members Susan Tran and Bobby Jacobs will graduate in December. All are working on the startup, at their office in the University’s Energy Research Park, as they juggle additional jobs and look for investors.