Business, creativity, and the environment don’t always go hand-in-hand, but the Triton Innovation Network (TriNet) Challenge presents a perfect opportunity to merge the three fields. Now in its fourth year, the TriNet Challenge is a business competition that encourages bright minds at UC San Diego to submit project ideas for innovative, commercially promising, environmentally focused technologies.
Funded by the William and Kathryn Scripps Family Foundation, the TriNet Challenge is a partnership among multiple departments at UC San Diego, including Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Rady School of Management, and the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center at the Jacobs School of Engineering (JSOE). This year’s program was extended to include any student, staff, or faculty member with a current UC San Diego affiliation.
A record-tying 27 applications were received by the Oct. 21 deadline. During early phases in the competition, an esteemed panel of judges whittled down the pool of applicants to 12 semifinalists. Experienced business mentors and entrepreneurs helped the teams refine their product, market, and business concepts, and prepare top-notch presentations.
A handful of teams made it through the semifinals and were selected to present at the final TriNet Challenge event, held on Dec. 2 in the Beyster Auditorium at the Rady School. The final five teams were:
- BioMarine Surfactants – Distinguished Professor William Gerwick and graduate student Bailey Miller (Scripps Oceanography)
- Bior’Wrapp – Postdoctoral scholars Wilson Mendoza and Daniela Reimer (Scripps Oceanography), Postdoctoral scholar Qiang Zhu (Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research)
- CB Therapeutics – MBA student Sher Ali Butt (Rady School)
- ChaiBrew – MBA students Anand Parikh, Prince Gupta, Kelly Wilks, and Jason Turner (Rady School)
- Slithr Electric Vehicles – Undergraduate student Carl Demolder (JSOE)
With $11,000 in cash prizes at stake, each team took the stage and had ten minutes to pitch their idea to the judges. Projects ranged from the development of energy-efficient and customizable electric skateboards to engineering a chai latte brewing machine that produces minimal waste (no plastic capsules used).
After the panel calculated the results, the TriNet Challenge awards were presented by Robert Sullivan, dean of the Rady School, and Jeff Gee, associate vice chancellor and deputy director for research at Scripps Oceanography.
The first place prize of $6,000 went to Ali Butt for CB Therapeutics, a project that genetically engineers a strain of yeast to produce the non-psychoactive cannabinoids found in cannabis without growing any plants. CB Therapeutics aims to industrialize the old process of growing cannabis and extracting cannabinoids, therefore expediting product turn-around time and drastically reducing the cost of cannabinoids, which are used to treat a variety of medical conditions.
Second place of $3,000 was awarded to Mendoza and Reimer from Scripps and Zhu from the Ludwig Institute for Bior’Wrapp, a seaweed-based, two-layer protective coating formulated to increase the shelf-life of fruits, vegetables, and meat products—while still maintaining natural appearance and nutritional quality of these products.
“Our team believes that Bior’Wrapp could provide alternative solutions to plastic pollution, CO2 emission, and food waste. If we could be a part of the solution to this massive problem on reducing food waste to about 15%, we could already feed 25 million people, and subsequently reduce our CO2 emission and significantly reduce freshwater use,” said Mendoza. “We are grateful to the TriNet Innovation Challenge organizers and sponsors for giving us the opportunity to present our ideas and provide alternative solutions in the battle to fight marine plastic pollution and climate change.”
The award for third place and $1,500 went to BioMarine Surfactants, a Scripps-based team that developed a new class of bio-inspired surfactant that has applications in everything from detergent additives to textiles to the oil and gas industry. Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension between two liquids or between a liquid and a solid and they have the properties of detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, and dispersants.
The BioMarine Surfactants team discovered a natural and sustainable biosurfactant from a marine cyanobacterium, and they developed a simple one-step method to produce this compound from plant oils.
"It was an incredible experience for my PhD student Bailey Miller and myself to participate in this competition, and to get so much positive feedback,” said Gerwick, project lead and distinguished professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical sciences at Scripps. “As a result, we are both inspired to try to take this technology forward and commercialize it in the coming years. It will be great to get continued mentorship from people associated with this program as to the business aspects of this project."
The Audience Award of $500, calculated through a text-to-vote mechanism, went to CB Therapeutics.
The evening closed with a brief update from Rick Cooper, CEO of MANTA Instruments, Inc. MANTA placed third in the TriNet Challenge in 2014 and is now a new company formed by way of a collaborative effort among Scripps researchers, the Triton Technology Fund, and local incubator program EvoNexus. The recent success of MANTA highlights the endless possibilities available to aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs at UC San Diego.
TriNet Challenge leaders hope to grow the competition even more next year—and we are already looking forward to the ambitious projects that 2016 is sure to offer.
– Brittany Hook