By Lexy Brodt, UW-Madison, College of Engineering
The first-place winner of the Qualcomm Innovation Competition on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus is a device that mixes chemicals within a pipe.
While a static mixer doesn’t sound very glamorous, it could be a big deal for people who need to mix everything from cells to powder. The design, Remex, was developed by students Eric Ronning, Brian Pekron and Will Doniger. Mechanical engineering senior Ronning is a perennial inventor who launched a career as an entrepreneur when he developed the “ReHand,” a 3-D printed hand for amputees, in 2012.
In its fifth year, the competition, sponsored by global semiconductor company Qualcomm Inc., challenges UW-Madison students to develop new products or technologies and marry those ideas with market-ready business plans. The Remex team earned the top prize and $15,000 in the 2015 competition, which occurred Apr. 22-23.
With its Remex, the trio has participated in a variety of other competitions, gaining new knowledge about the product and building an understanding of the business behind product manufacturing and promotion.
Ronning came up with the idea about two years ago while taking a class with Kuo K. and Cindy F. Wang Professor of Mechanical Engineering Tim Osswald, in which he was learning about mixing processes. About a year ago, Ronning, Pekron (nuclear engineering) and Doniger (materials science and engineering) started to work seriously on the project.
Since then, they’ve taken part in the national Collegiate Inventors Competition (CIC) and the Wisconsin Energy and Sustainability Challenge. From the latter, they won the Dvorak Energy Innovation Prize.
Yet much of what they learned wasn’t necessarily from winning.
“What we took away from the CIC is everything we learned from talking to the judges afterwards, and that’s what allowed us to propel forward,” Ronning says. “We learned a lot about the weak points in our plan, specifically from a business standpoint.”
The design itself involves moving a fluid in such a way that is better than the industry standard, Pekron says.
The design can either replace or complement current processes, according to Ronning. The results are much more energy-efficient, based on simulations the group conducted.
But there is more to the product beyond energy concerns.
“There’s a lot of opportunities with this design that are outside of just energy savings; there’s a reduced shear stress in the fluid, which is a technical term for saying that you can mix things more gently with this design,” Ronning says. “So it could be used for things like bioreactors, where you have live cells that can’t get destroyed in the process. That’s the most exciting thing for us.”
Remex can also be used in chemical and polymer processing, food manufacturing and wastewater treatment.
Ronning and his teammates are looking forward to the future potential of their product, which they hope to get into markets within a year. Their next step is conducting case studies of the product with the knowledge base of each competition under their belts.
The second place winner, which earned $7,000, was a caffeinated mint called Rally Energy, developed and marketed by materials science and engineering graduate student Matthew Starr.
Students Jennifer Sharpe (political science) and Lanyon Conrad (mechanical engineering) win prize for best presentation.
The idea for such a mint came about due to simple demands. “I just chose something I thought people would want, that’s designed around their needs, especially on a campus with college students and young professionals,” Starr says.
Starr, who developed the first prototype of the mint in his kitchen, is fascinated by product development, and has an astute knowledge of how consumers look at and perceive a product. Yet many of his marketing efforts are well informed by his education in science and engineering.
“There’s some mentality in startups called lean startup,” he says. “If you boil it down, it says you validate your idea before you scale. Go prove there’s a demand, that the model you’re creating works, before you dump a whole bunch of money into it. That makes a lot of sense to me, when I do the scientific process every day in my lab. My engineering and science education definitely helped me come to peace with the lean startup mentality.”
After deciding to run with the mint idea in July of 2013, Starr had to go through multiple attempts to develop the product he wanted—one that ultimately would fit the needs of potential customers. The competition’s monetary prize will help him cover many of the costs associated with testing and manufacturing the product.
“I didn’t think I would have to go through that many iterations, but that’s fine that it required that, because it was something I was always willing to do,” he says. “To make another prototype of it, test it in the market, go and ask people about it; I don’t mind doing that stuff at all.”
Starr’s enthusiasm shines through as he describes the future of his product, the parts of which are being manufactured in Chicago, Indianapolis and Wisconsin facilities. Before long, he anticipates that Rally Energy will be showing up at stores around State Street.
“When you start getting a refined idea that people really, really start liking, it gets really exciting,” he says. “That just feeds on itself. So I definitely enjoy the process.”
The $5,000 third-place prize in the competition went to Providentia for its computerized navigation system, which measures the location of a medical instrument in relation to a patient’s body. The team included students Stephen Monette, Matt Boyer, Alex Nguyen and Jake Levin (all in biomedical engineering).
Prizes of $1,000 each for best prototype, best business plan and best presentation went to TourBalance, Dr. Detector and Serving Earth, respectively. TourBalance, invented by David J. Severseike (biological systems engineering), is a golf-training device that allows users to develop a proper swing and improve their balance. Best business plan went to students Cheng Liu (engineering physics), Eva Wang (accounting), Kelsey Beuning (journalism), Hanwen Chen (electrical and computer engineering) and Thomas Mallot (chemical engineering) for Dr. Detector, a device that monitors methane leaks on natural gas pipelines, specifically on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). Serving Earth, led by teammates Jennifer Sharpe (political science) and Lanyon Conrad (mechanical engineering), won for their reusable to-go boxes for cafeterias.
– Reposted from UW-Madison, College of Engineering