University begins challenge for next big ‘green’ product

The winning product or service is eligible for a $1 million start-up grant.

Kelly Gulbrandson

The University is looking for the next big product to come out of a challenge between the University’s Venture Center and the Office of Technology Commercialization.

The second-annual $1M Commercialization Challenge started Monday with an informational presentation at the McNamara Alumni Center.

This year’s emphasis is on environmentally friendly proposals.

Doug Johnson, director of the Venture Center, which helps license products invented at the University, said the challenge’s winner will receive money to bring the product or service into the public market.

“This year’s challenge is different from last year’s because we received money from a donor for a ‘green’ product,” he said.

If a “green” product wins, it’s eligible for up to $1 million in start-up money. A winning product or idea that isn’t “green” is eligible for up to $100,000, according to the center’s Web site.

The University has a mediocre success rate of marketing products invented here compared to other universities, Doug Johnson said.

For example, Stanford University marketed Google, which became very successful, he said. The challenge is one way to change that situation at the University.

Faculty, students and business professionals who invented a product or service within the University can enter, he said.

“If a student or faculty member invented a good product Ö in their garage, it wouldn’t be allowed to be entered in the competition because it’s not University intellectual property,” he said.

The submission can’t be already patented either, Doug Johnson said. He said there must be a market for the product and a strong chance that it will survive in the public sphere and continue to make money.

While students don’t typically participate in the challenge because their ideas aren’t usually strictly University intellectual property, Doug Johnson said they can take part if they worked with faculty on a project.

The winner doesn’t just get money, but also works directly with The Venture Center on the start-up mission.

Last year, a medical device that tracks changes in cells and an improvement on electric motors shared the title and money.

Mechanical engineering senior Steve Johnson, a student associate in the Venture Center, said he doesn’t know any undergraduate students participating in this year’s challenge.

He said while he isn’t currently working on any projects associated with the competition, after graduation he wants to “jump on board” with one of the start-ups he is working on through the Venture Center.

“I would like to work on the technical side of companies and anything that is hands-on,” he said.

Tom Halvorson, managing director of Minneapolis-based investment company Piper Jaffray, spoke at the kickoff as an expert on green technology.

He said the competition is important because the ideas and new companies that take root here could provide student jobs in the future.

Doug Johnson said while the deadline to submit an application is Jan. 31, people shouldn’t wait to submit ideas.

“If someone presents an interesting idea that is marketable, we aren’t going to wait,” he said.

Steve Johnson said students should be more aware of the technology produced by the University.

“It’s important for students to know how the University works and where professors get money for their research,” he said.