Three University of Texas at El Paso students hope to turn a Nobel
Prize-winning material into a multimillion-dollar business tied to a low-cost,
environmentally friendly technology for recycling water.
They are off to a flying start with two wins and a top 10 finish in recent weeks at three venture competitions -- college versions of TV's "Shark Tank," where entrepreneurs try to convince investors to buy into their companies and ideas.
The students received an $100,000 investment in their recently formed company, American Water Recycling, by winning the University of Texas System Horizon Fund Student Investment Competition this month in Austin. Sixteen teams from 10 UT System schools competed.
They finished in the top 10 among 39 teams from around the world in what is billed as the Super Bowl of venture competitions -- the annual Global Venture Labs Investment Competition, also at the University of Texas at Austin this month.
They won $10,000 in March by winning the student portion of the Paso del Norte Venture Competition at UTEP.
"We want to start here and operate here. It should be really fun to hire people from UTEP," said Eva Deemer, a UTEP doctoral student in materials science and engineering, and inventor of a patent-pending membrane that may filter water more efficiently and more economically than filtration devices now on the market.
Bryan Allinson, executive director of the UT Horizon Fund, said judges in the fund's second annual venture competition determined the UTEP team "had the best opportunity for investors to recover their investment, and the best opportunity to commercialize their product. We believe their company can be successful, but they need more (startup) money to be successful."
The fund, started in 2011 to make investments in companies spun out of UT System schools, is giving the UTEP startup company $100,000 in seed money for their victory.
Last year, Deemer had no visions of starting a business when she began lab experiments with graphene -- a super-thin, almost transparent, super-strong, light and flexible form of carbon that won two Russian-born scientists the 2010 Nobel Prize.
The scientists discovered how to extract graphene from graphite, the material in lead pencils, into a form expected to be used to make a variety of innovative products -- from transparent touch screens and faster computers to light, but strong materials for aircraft. Experts have labeled graphene a "wonder material" that could revolutionize electronics and other industries.
Deemer's doctoral-thesis work is focused on using graphene for solar cells and electronic applications. But she began reading about other graphene properties, and that led her to conclude the material could be turned into "the world's best water filter," she said.
"It's really a simple material" with a lot of "crazy, amazing properties," Deemer said last week in a UTEP lab as she held a piece of graphene she made. It looked like a piece of paper. She also displayed other graphene she made for her experiments that looked like thin sheets of plastic.
"The first experiment I did was extremely successful," Deemer said. And while researchers at Lockheed Martin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have been studying ways to use graphene filters for water desalinization,
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