After the shortcomings of Western basketball, it’s comforting that at least one team from Western reached a sweet 16. But this team’s uniform is a suit and tie, its game is solar energy and the tournament is the University of Washington Business Plan Competition.
Western students Blake Bishop, Christian Erickson, Josh Bennett, James Mayther, Sarah O’Sell and Jim Kintzele make up the team behind NOVA Solar Window, a transparent material that can function as a solar panel on the outside of a clear window.
The team and their product won $10,000 at the Sixth Annual Environmental Innovation Challenge on April 3 before ranking in the top 16 at UWBCP on April 29. The winner of the final competition on May 22 will take home $25,000.
“The project started out as a three-inch cube five years ago, and every year it’s been making these leaps in terms of technology and this year, as soon as we found out that it was clear, we all immediately latched on to the idea of windows,” said Josh Bennett, the team’s marketing director.
Bennett said that a year ago, the material was flexible but a bright orange color, “almost like a safety orange.” Now that it’s transparent, Bennett sees huge long-term possibilities.
“We’re making solar panels inhabit the same space as a window. That’s wholly new, and if we can convey that message, I think we can come out on top,” he said.
The market for transparent solar collectors is still small. One company produces windows striped with photovoltaic cells, which look to the eye like a piece of college ruled paper. Another group of researchers is trying to produce a spray-on solar collection material. But within the UWBPC, NOVA is unique. During the competition, Bennett works to reel in the potential “investors,” the judges of the competition who walk from booth to booth listening to the teams’ pitches.
“I imagine myself as a fisherman, or a shark, depending on what I’m doing,” Bennett said. “If I’m standing near the table I’m the fisherman and I’m trying to bait them in. I’m not trying to do that in some kind of cheesy, salesman kind of way, I’m trying to get their attention, engage them, and say, ‘Hey, who are you, what are you about, have you seen this? Because this is awesome.’”
Of the 16 teams that qualified for the final competition, 10 were from UW, and for Bennett and the rest of the team, it’s important to prove that Western can compete with all of them.
“We can all agree that Bellingham and Western is not Seattle and the University of Washington. It’s unfortunate but it’s patently true. And it’s cool to show them and the rest of the state of Washington, and really the rest of the world, that big things can come out of little places like Western,” Bennett said.
The $10,000 the team won at the Environmental Innovation Challenge went back into research and preparation for upcoming competitions. Bennett said it was an exhilarating experience to hold a check worth so much money. To win the $25,000, Bennett says the key is salesmanship.
“We have a solid team. We have a solid project. We have solid numbers. But honestly, these things come down to salesmanship, the ability to clearly educate the investors and to clearly convey our message. If we can’t do that, we might as well not even go,” Bennett said.
But Bennett’s confidence is infallible. When asked if there were any moments of doubt during preparation for competition, he responded: “I don’t doubt. Doubt is a waste of time.”
In the end, the future of the project comes down to money. The team is working to have a window using their technology installed in the Viking Union.
Their initial proposal to the Green Energy Fund Committee was turned down, but the possibility is still there.
“We don’t want to do an installation at Western that’s subpar. It has to look like it’s coming from a massive corporation or operation that knows exactly what they’re doing. It has to look awesome,” Bennett said.
Going into the final competition, team CEO Blake Bishop said in an email that, “The competition [in May] is going to be tough, but the team is confident.”
Bennett says that with a good chunk of money and a little more development, solar-window skyscrapers might only be five years away.
For the entire NOVA team, the future seems, well, bright.