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Tapping the creativity of student entrepreneurs

15 student teams are competing for 10 slots, $5K in ASU's eSeed Challenge.
Student-venture eSeed Challenge part of ASU's culture of innovation.
November 18, 2015

ASU eSeed Challenge aims to develop early-stage ventures; 15 finalist teams compete this week

The Veg-O-Matic. The Pocket Fisherman. The Roomba. None exactly an iPhone, but everyone knows what they are and some people swear by them.

Seizing that everyone’s-gonna-want-one moment and running with it is an Arizona State University hallmark. After all, it’s a university that has spun off 12 new start-ups, 63 patents, and 270 invention disclosures in just this fiscal year alone.

And the university expects the same of its students. A twice-yearly entrepreneurial contest at Arizona State University aims at uncovering the next great invention or idea.

Thursday, as part of the second phase, 15 student teams will pitch their ideas to a panel of judges, competing for 10 slots where each will be awarded $5,000 to gain traction in their target markets.

The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering’s eSeed Challenge is part of ASU’s Innovation Challenge program, a series of competitions among the university’s colleges and schools.

Competition is open to all ASU students who aim to prove or disprove that there is valid demand for a prototyped product or service beyond an initial beneficiary or customer. Organized by the Fulton Schools Startup Center, this competition aims to strategically develop early-stage student ventures that may be well suited to compete in and win other competitions.

Three of the initial 30 pitches were solar arrays attractive enough that people would actually want them on their homes, a shower mat that can detect bathroom falls and call for help, and drone-vertising.

Eye-pleasing solar

In the competition to make any building insta-ugly, solar panels win hands-down. Architects flatly state they don’t want to design them onto their buildings.

BISTEG — for Building Integrated Solar Thermal Electric Generation — combines art, design, technology and sustainability by aiming to sell attractive solar arrays that can be incorporated into building facades.

“The aesthetic concerns are something that give us a competitive advantage,” said Kaitlin Vortherms, co-founder and team lead, earning a doctorate in sustainable engineering. “We are excited about the project, because no one else is doing it.”

BISTEG has created glass bricks that use a combination of different materials to generate electricity from temperature swings. The bricks can be arranged in different designs to complement architecture.

The team was partly inspired by wandering around campus under ASU’s many solar installations. “It had a lot to do with the opportunity around us,” said team member Lauren McBurnett, who is earning a doctorate in environmental engineering.

Although BISTEG didn’t make the cut to pitch in the eSeed Challenge this week, don’t cry for them. Clean-tech people, utility Arizona Public Service and some angel investors have all shown an interest. The group also won a $15,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year.

“We are working with (investors) to develop prototypes as we move forward,” Vortherms said.

Help for those who’ve fallen

SlipSensed is a fall-detection shower mat that can send out a distress signal to emergency personnel or family members alerting them that a fall has occurred.

“Everyone has had someone who has fallen, particularly their grandparents,” said co-founder Drew Beauchamp, earning a degree in biomedical engineering. “We came up with the idea and just ran with it.”

Sensors determine weight distribution across the mat when someone falls. A microcomputer analyzes data, and then calls a cellphone or sends an alarm. Users can program the mat to call anyone they want.

“We plan to make it very user-friendly,” Beauchamp said. “Ideally you’d want it to call emergency services, like Life Alert does.”

Beauchamp and co-founders Jordan Kariniemi and Mikayle Holm, also studying biomedical engineering, built a prototype as proof of concept that the code and mat will work. The refined product will be waterproof and battery-powered.

“Right now the one we have doesn’t look pretty,” Beauchamp said. “It’s not market-ready.”

The best place to put the mat will be in the shower or tub floor.

“The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has done a lot of research on this,” Beauchamp said. “The majority of falls occur in the bathroom and in the shower. … In the kitchen you’re not guaranteed to fall on the mat, so we’d recommend using it in the shower.”


Remember the old biplanes towing Coppertone ad banners above beaches? Drone-vertising is the next generation of that idea. SkyAds will get your message above eyeballs via drones dangling banners (pictured at the top of this story).

Drone-vertising offers advantages over older versions of advertising because it’s low-cost, mobile and attention-grabbing.

“We plan on doing it at concerts, entertainment venues, any place where there is a lot of people and a safe place to fly,” said co-founder and team lead Brandon Keeber, earning a degree in aerospace engineering. “Basically anyone who wants to advertise with us, we have a really mobile, flexible platform.”

Keeber and his teammates saw a potential market.

“We saw the photography and filming drone market is pretty saturated,” he said. “We needed to think of something else. This is one that was pretty easy to enter into for low cost.”

They have gotten insured and earned an FAA exemption, and also some attention from potential customers.

“Currently people are fascinated with drones,” Keeber said. “Whether they feel positively or negatively about drones, it’s definitely more attention. It’s a spectacle.”

The 15 finalist teams will make their pitches Thursday at the ASU Memorial Union in Tempe. Find out more about the eSeed Challenge, including future competitions, at

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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ASU's white laser technology one of year's top breakthroughs

ASU white lasers promise bright future in lighting, light-based communications.
Popular Science names ASU's white lasers as Best of What's New for the year.
November 18, 2015

Engineering professor's invention promises a bright future according to Popular Science magazine

The invention of the world’s first white laser, which could revolutionize communications, lighting and displays, is being recognized as one of the top 100 breakthroughs of the year by Popular Science magazine.

Arizona State University electrical engineering professor Cun-Zheng Ning worked on the problem for 10 years until he and his team of graduate students cracked it.

The white laser will eventually produce computer and TV displays with 70 percent more colors than current technology.

(ASU brings comic book technology to life.)

Laser TVs exist now, but they are bulky, heavy and extremely expensive. And, without the white laser, they haven’t reached their full potential.

Ning saw the first laser TV eight years ago in Japan.

“When you see a laser TV, you want to throw away the best other TVs immediately,” said NingThe School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering is in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Ning is also graduate faculty in the Department of Physics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and in Material Science and Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering., a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering. “There’s just no comparison. It can cover much wider color ranges. … You get many, many more colors.”

(ASU's Library has the droids you are looking for.)

ASU engineering professor Cun-Zheng Ning in his lab

Electrical engineering professor
Cun-Zheng Ning speaks
about the white lasers research
in his ASU lab.

Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

But don’t camp out at Best Buy just yet. It will take some time for the technology to advance to the consumer level, Ning said.

“It’s basic research at this point,” he said. “The lasers are still quite big, and the projection is not like an LCD TV we have at home. … We cannot produce multicolor white lasers that efficiently, so that we can put in our TV pixels.”

(Read more stories about discoveries at ASU.)

The invention is the product of nanophotonics, the study of light on the nanometer scale (one-billionth of a meter) and how nanometer-size objects interact with light. It combines optics, optical engineering, electrical engineering and nanotechnology.

“Nanophotonics is a pretty new field of research,” Ning said. “What we try to do is see if we can make nanophotonic devices that are very difficult to make. … With the white laser, we take advantage of nano-scaled materials.”

The semiconductor that produces the white laser is formed into three segments that generate red, green and blue lasers that combine to create a pure white light. Growing the semiconductor on a nanoscale was the key to cracking the problem.              

“Imagine if you can use lasers as future lighting,” Ning said. “Using white lasers for lighting and LiFi ... the concept of LiFi is pretty new. It’s more active in Europe than the U.S.”

The LiFi concept is simple: Whatever you use for lighting will also transmit data, the Internet and everything else you get on a phone or tablet. You will get any information you want, instantly, no matter how big. The technology is being developed, according to Ning.

“It’s much faster than the Wi-Fi we have now,” he said. “And it’s much more secure; you just shut your door and anyone outside can’t get your signal. And it’s much faster; right now typically we get tens of megabits. With LED-based LiFi, you can get easily hundreds of megabits. Lasers are a hundred times faster than LEDs. That’s been demonstrated.”

It’s impossible to say when consumers will have lighting, displays and LiFi in their hands. The technology is so new Apple, Intel, and Motorola Mobility all refused to comment on it. Apple had a patent for a laser TV but abandoned development of it last year. The Wall Street Journal reported the picture was sub-par and it used an insane amount of power.

“Even on the research level we have a lot of work to do,” Ning said. Powering the laser with a battery will be the next biggest hurdle. (Currently it’s powered by another laser.)

Though there is still research to be done, the breakthrough discovery is being recognized for its significance by Popular Science in the December issue hitting stands Nov. 18.

“When I was back in China I read some (issues),” Ning said. “It’s a pretty prestigious magazine, so I’m happy.”               

Each year, Popular Science editors review thousands of products in search of the top 100 tech innovations of the year — breakthrough products and technologies that represent a significant leap in their categories. The winners, the Best of What's New, are awarded inclusion in the much-anticipated December issue of the magazine.

“The Best of What’s New awards honor the innovations that surprise and amaze us — those that challenge our view of what’s possible in the future,” said editor-in-chief Cliff Ransom. “The award is Popular Science’s top prize, and the 100 winners — chosen from among thousands of nominees — are each a revolution in their respective fields.”

Best of What’s New awards are presented in 12 categories: automotive, aviation, computing, engineering, gadgets, green, entertainment, security, software, home, health and recreation.

Ning joined Arizona State University in 2006 as a full professor of electrical engineering from the NASA Center of Nanotechnology at NASA’s Ames Research Center, and University Affiliated Research Center of University of California, where he was a senior scientist, group leader in nanophotonics, and task manager in nanotechnology. He is also adjunct or guest professor of several universities in China. Ning has published more than 160 papers and given more than 120 keynote-type talks.