University of Arkansas students present their method of purifying produced water that comes from oil and gas operations at the first Waste-management Education Resource Consortium Environmental Design Contest Flash Talk competition | Photo courtesy NMSU

Students pitch solutions to environmental problems at first Flash Talk hosted by NMSU

New Mexico State University students took to the virtual stage this spring to compete in the first-ever Waste-management Education Resource Consortium Environmental Design Contest Flash Talk competition.

The Shark Tank-like event, sponsored by Arrowhead Center at NMSU, has one mission: to teach undergraduate students how to pitch their team-designed products to potential investors.

The flash talk competition is the newest event in the WERC Environmental Design Contest. In its 31st year, the contest asks teams of undergraduate engineers and scientists to submit solutions to some of the most challenging environmental problems facing the world today. Students research the problem, build a working bench-scale model of their solution, propose a plan for full-scale delivery – including a plan for the cost of building and operating the device – and discuss their plans with the judges who are practicing engineers.

The flash talks take WERC teams to the next level, giving them a chance to pitch their product to experienced commercialization experts. No bids were made for the team’s products. Instead, the judges scored the event and prizes were awarded.

Three judges represented Arrowhead Center: Patricia Marquez Knighten, director of Innovation and Commercialization; Ed Pines, professor in residence and Arrowhead Center enterprise adviser; and Carlos Murguia, Arrowhead Innovation Fund’s associate fund manager. Eric Montgomery, vice president of business development for the Mesilla Valley Economic Development Alliance, and Steven Walsh, professor of management of technology and entrepreneurship at the University of New Mexico, rounded out the list of judges.

“WERC is honored to have an impressive list of experienced and influential business start-up advisors serve as the judges. The students who competed received invaluable insights from them,” said Ginger Scarbrough, WERC program manager.

“It was impressive and insightful to view the presentations from WERC Environmental Design teams in this year’s contest,” Knighten said. “The student presenters showed enthusiasm and professionalism in their pitch style and knowledge of subjects, presenting some viable and well thought out approaches to solving important problems. WERC did a great job in hosting the event and in preparing the presenters to get their point across succinctly.”

Rice University won first place and a $1,000 prize for their plan to destroy toxic polyfluoroalkyl substances, found in Teflon and fire-fighting foams, that are traditionally hard to eliminate.

“It was a really good experience to be forced to present within three minutes because it made me really think about what was important to include versus what could be trimmed,” said Lauren Chiang, a Rice University student. “The flash talk competition made me realize how much thought goes into bringing products to market. I actually really enjoyed the experience of presenting to the judges and receiving feedback. The judges were helpful and gave us good advice.”

The University of Arkansas won second place and a $500 prize for their method of purifying produced water, a product of oil and gas operations. A team from the University of Arkansas also won third place and a $250 prize for devising a way to recycle plastics.

The crowd favorite, voted through Zoom, went to Rice University. Other teams competing in the contest were California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, and Washington State University.

“Over the years I have visited the WERC Design Contests, I have always been impressed with the enthusiasm and dedication of student teams in their design projects.  The students met this challenge with style,” Pines said. “The talks were exciting and pointed to bright futures for the students who participated in their team’s work.”

Chiang said, “As someone interested in start-up work and entrepreneurship. I felt like I gained experience and advice that I don’t have access to during my typical chemical engineering classes.”

Author: Cassie McClure – NMSU


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Rice University student Lauren Chiang talks about toxic polyfluoroalkyl substances at the first Waste-management Education Resource Consortium Environmental Design Contest Flash Talk competition. |
Photo courtesy NMSU