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ASU venture advances to finals of Walmart challenge


March 09, 2011

Pragmatic Energy, an Arizona State University student/faculty startup company launched with a $10,000 award from the Edson Student Entrepreneurship Initiative, will advance to the national round of the Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge after besting teams from three schools in the contest’s Western regional.

Teams in the Walmart contest compete on the basis of a “sustainable, profitable business plan for a new product or business process with a measurable positive environmental benefit.” The winning team receives $20,000 to help implement its business plan. The final rounds of competition will take place April 21-22 at Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

Pragmatic Energy is developing the BHR (short for BioHydrogenator), a bioreactor designed to make wastewater treatment more energy efficient for food and beverage manufacturers. By using up to 70 percent less electricity and producing 80 percent less solid waste compared to status quo methods, the BHR has the potential to reduce wastewater treatment costs for a typical food/beverage manufacturer by more than 50 percent. An added benefit of this technology is that it produces hydrogen from the wastewater as a value added byproduct.

“This win is a great validation for the work we’re doing and puts us one step closer to that $20,000 grand prize,” said Mark Sholin, co-founder and CEO of Pragmatic Energy and a graduate research associate at the Biodesign Institute at ASU. “We sincerely thank everyone who provided great feedback to improve the business plan and pitch and hope to continue iterating these as we prepare for the next round.”

Along with Sholin, Pragmatic Energy’s management team includes co-founder and chief technology officer Steven Van Ginkel and chief marketing officer En-Tien Chen. Van Ginkel is an assistant research scientist at the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology in the Biodesign Institute at ASU, and Chen is a business management and entrepreneurship undergrad at ASU. Sholin and his team have worked with a wide range of ASU units in developing Pragmatic Energy.

The Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative is a year-long accelerator program that provides funding, SkySong office space and mentoring for ASU student-led ventures. The Edson program has attracted 521 venture proposals in the past 5 years, with 82 ventures funded. The students represent all four ASU campuses, all 15 colleges and 44 different majors. The application for this year’s contest is now open, with a submission deadline of April 3rd.

Winning an Edson grant gave them the opportunity to work with Venture Catalyst, ASU’s entrepreneurial assistance initiative designed to help faculty, students, alumni and ASU-linked companies launch new startups or accelerate existing ventures.

Venture Catalyst teamed with the ASU Innovation Advancement Program (IAP) to help Pragmatic Energy develop its business plan, and completed financial reviews and a market analysis. The team also helped Pragmatic Energy build an advisory board that includes: Ken Baker, former VP of R&D at General Motors and current CEO of Techbroker; Dr. Bruce Rittmann, Regents Professor and director of the Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute at ASU; and Dr. Cesar Torres, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Barbara O’Connell, a Venture Catalyst senior management analyst, led the Venture Catalyst team working with Pragmatic Energy. Team members on the IAP side were Yang Li, Brian Greathouse and Melissa Silva.

“Pragmatic Energy has an excellent, sustainable technology and the team is rapidly learning the challenges and rewards of commercializing advanced research,” said O’Connell. “Mark is an outstanding example of a scientist-engineer who effectively applies himself to the art and science of innovation and entrepreneurship. We at the Venture Catalyst and the Innovation Advancement Program look forward to helping the team give its best shot at winning the competition in Arkansas in April.”

The ASU chapter of Net Impact and the W.P. Carey MBA Program hosted the Western regional event. Net Impact is an international nonprofit organization that co-sponsors the Walmart contest. For more information about the 2011 Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge, please visit: http://www.netimpact.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=2315.