Brant Chlebowski of California Seaweed Co. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

Around the Pier: Triton Innovation Challenge Awards Forward-Thinking Scientists

Innovative spirit in full swing at UC San Diego’s environmentally-focused business competition

Imagine a time in the future when the roads are meeting all electrical needs with embedded solar cells, important coastal data is collected with a special surfboard fin, and trees in the forest are equipped with inexpensive technology that can detect small fires before they spread.

Thanks to teams of scientists, innovators, and students at UC San Diego, these ideas are not so far fetched, and some already have been set into motion. Qualifying teams recently presented a handful of inventive projects at the sixth annual Triton Innovation Challenge, a business competition that spotlights commercially promising, environmentally focused technologies generated by UC San Diego’s finest minds. Funded by the William and Kathryn Scripps Family Foundation, the Triton Innovation Challenge is a partnership among UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management, Jacobs School of Engineering (JSOE), and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

This year’s competition received 27 total applications which were then pared down to ten semifinalists by a panel of judges. Half of the semifinalists were teams based at Scripps Oceanography, a record number.

Scripps semifinalists participated in the new Scripps Innovation Bootcamp, a three-week pitch and business development course taught at Scripps by staff from the Jacobs School of Engineering's Institute for the Global Entrepreneur. The bootcamp experience provided the Scripps teams with mentorship from experienced business professionals and entrepreneurs who helped each team refine their product, market, and business concepts, and master the ever important presentation pitch.

Five teams made it through the mid-November semifinals to present in the Triton Innovation Challenge finals, held Nov. 28 at the Robert Paine Scripps Forum for Science, Society and the Environment. (View photo gallery.)

The final five teams were:

  • BIC LIDAR - Babak Bahari (JSOE)

  • California Seaweed Co. - Brant Chlebowski (Scripps)

  • E-Way - Alejandro Conde Perez (Rady) and Wei Huang (JSOE)

  • Smartfin - Phil Bresnahan (Scripps)

  • The Green Stop - Rachel Labbé-Bellas (Scripps) and Juliana Brasil (Rady)

With cash prizes totaling $20,000, the stakes were high for teams to successfully wow judges during a ten-minute window in front of a packed house. Presenters also engaged in a brief Q&A with the judges following their presentation.  

While the results were being tallied, the audience heard a presentation from Aliaksandr Zaretski, founder of GrollTex, a Triton Innovation Challenge alum and company specializing in breakthrough technology for the mass production of graphene. Then the much anticipated awards were announced by Scripps Director Margaret Leinen and Robert Sullivan, dean of the Rady School.

The first place winner and $10,000 went to BIC LIDAR, a startup that emerged from the UC San Diego electrical and computer engineering department. BIC LIDAR is working on compact, relatively inexpensive solid state lasers for LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) applications. This LIDAR system has possible applications for wildfire detection in forestry. However, autonomous vehicles are among applications of this technology that have large potential markets.

“We demonstrated the new laser based on completely new physics that enables us to surpass a fundamental technological barrier in LIDAR technology,” said presenter Babak Bahari, a fourth-year graduate student at the electrical and computer engineering department at JSOE. “With this laser, we can remove all mechanical components, shrink the size of LIDAR systems to the nanoscale, and increase the speed at least six orders of magnitude.”

Second place and $5,000 went to E-Way, a collaboration among students at Rady and JSOE to develop technology to safely electrify roads using solar panels. The E-Way team has developed a modular, high strength, interchangeable and interlocking housing for the solar cell, which is organic, low cost, and environmentally efficient.

Scripps-led venture California Seaweed Co. took third place in the competition and $2,500. California Seaweed Co. focuses on growing sustainable seaweed aquaculture for the culinary market. Founder Brant Chlebowski, a Scripps MAS student, said the company is driven by the vision to supply live native Californian seaweeds to the United States culinary market, with a strong emphasis on sustainability and nutritional content.

According to Chlebowski, many local chefs don’t have access to consistent, high volume live culinary seaweeds, one of the most sustainable and nutritious foods available. California Seaweed Co. aims to change the seaweed scene through land-based aquaculture.

The Audience Award of $2,500, calculated via a text-to-vote mechanism, went to The Green Stop, a solar-powered, filtered water refill station that promotes a sustainable lifestyle for people enjoying the outdoors. The Green Stop aims to help cities achieve zero waste goals by reducing plastic waste. Scripps researcher and presenter Rachel Labbé-Bellas said that these green stations have the potential to remove 42 million water bottles from the waste stream in California each year, saving the state $4.4 million on beach and waterway cleanup. The refill stations are currently in the design phase, but the team hopes to implement pilot models at several beaches in the near future.

Labbé-Bellas said she was thrilled to receive the audience favorite award and said the funds will help her team garner engineering support for the overall design and collect market data on beachgoer value.

“I think people resonate with my plastic-free solution because everyone feels that they can be a part of it,” said Labbé-Bellas, who is also founder of the Scripps Sustainability Group. “I think that’s why the Green Stop touched on a lot of people’s emotions.”

Scripps engineer Phil Bresnahan delivered a presentation on the Smartfin Project, a collaboration among researchers at Scripps Oceanography, the Surfrider Foundation, and the nonprofit Lost Bird Project. Smartfin is a surfboard fin equipped with sensors to record ocean data, and the overall project aims to communicate the critical ocean health issues of our time. Bresnahan said that coastal management decisions rely on accurate data “and we simply don’t have enough.”

Smartfin-using surfers become citizen scientists and help collect valuable data and insights while doing what they love to do: surf. “The Internet of Things is already on land. Let’s bring it to the ocean,” said Bresnahan.

Scripps semifinalists that didn’t advance to the finals included Hydrokinetic Energy & Storage, a project that’s developing a modular mechanical system for harnessing and storing oceanic wave energy, and NMR Finder, an artificial intelligence system to automatically determine chemical structures using 2D NMR spectra.

As the evening concluded, Leinen and Sullivan thanked all teams for their participation and commented on the critically important partnership among the three UC San Diego departments that participate in the annual Triton Innovation Challenge.  

“When students, staff and faculty from across UC San Diego come together to innovate, there is no limit to what we can accomplish,” said Leinen.

Related Image Gallery: 2017 Triton Innovation Challenge

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at

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