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, no one, as far as Deemer knows, is using the material for water extraction as the UTEP team plans to do, she said.
The UTEP startup's first niche market is grease-collection companies that need to separate huge amounts of grease from huge amounts of water, she said.
Deemer, 28, an El Paso native and Franklin High School graduate with a UTEP degree in chemistry, late last year learned about the Paso del Norte Venture Competition and jumped at the chance to enter it.
However, while she had a good idea and technical expertise, she needed others with more business acumen.
She was introduced to Alex Pastor, a UTEP marketing student interested in getting involved in a water-recycling project.
Pastor, 22, also an El Paso native and Coronado High School graduate, once operated an El Paso seafood stand, which earned him an entrepreneurial scholarship. He's an intern at the Hub of Human Innovation, an El Paso technology incubator where American Water Recycling is now being mentored -- one of their prizes for the team's El Paso venture competition victory.
Pastor recruited another Hub of Innovation staffer, Diego Capeletti, onto the team. Capeletti, 32, moved to the United States from Argentina several years ago with his wife, and came to El Paso in 2011. He received a master of business administration degree from UTEP on Saturday. He also has an accounting degree from an Argentina university.
When they started formulating a business plan early this year, the UTEP students were only focused on competing in the El Paso venture contest, Capeletti said.
After their wins, Deemer chimed in, "everything got real." Their business dreams began.
They've already lined up their first customer.
"I told them I would buy the first two systems they get," said Greg Jarvies, owner of American Waste Removal in Albuquerque.
The company pumps grease out of traps from restaurants and other places, and also operates two New Mexico plants where grease haulers each day dump thousands of gallons of grease/water gunk.
The plants uses a slow heat process to separate grease from the water.
"It's a nightmare to get it (water) cleaned up. I've been trying to find something better for 30 years," Jarvies said. "With this, we would just have to run it through the filter and it could go into the city water supply."
Deemer said her graphene membrane can extract grease from the water and clean the water much faster than existing water-filter membranes. Other membranes can process about 30 gallons a day while hers can do 30 gallons per hour, she said.
"Our niche market is a nasty little market nobody has heard of. But the water-treatment market is huge," Deemer said.
Gary Williams, director of the UTEP Center for Research Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which helps nurture UTEP-based startups, said the UTEP team's technology comes at a time when drought is on the top of minds across the nation.
"This can be part of the solution," Williams said.
The team is made up of hard workers and Deemer does an impressive job of conveying her technical knowledge, Williams said.
This is the first UTEP team to ever compete in the Global Venture competition, he added.
The UTEP students are now armed with business cards carrying their executive titles in their young company. But their pay for now is "sweat equity," Pastor noted.
They are now pursuing a $300,000 state grant to help pay for a proposed, year-long test of the graphene-membrane technology at a septic-tank pumping company in Las Cruces.
They also are honing their business plan, which calls for hitting sales of $33 million in a five-year period as the company branches out in the future to various water-treatment and water-recycling markets.
The young entrepreneurs will likely tap into the leads to investors and others they collected at the venture competitions.
"We have a lot of cards and a lot of people to contact," Deemer said.
(c)2013 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)
Visit the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) at www.elpasotimes.com
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