Student sustainability competition a springboard for local development, global solutions

February 15, 2012

A new way to produce energy from agricultural waste, a recycled device that can provide cheap and efficient electricity in developing countries, and a smart phone application that allows shoppers to check the carbon footprint of grocery items with the click of a button. These are just a few of the cutting edge sustainability solutions advanced by enterprising environmental innovators " all students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The ideas were born out of an annual innovation competition hosted by the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment. The contest is in its fourth year and open to all UW-Madison undergraduate and graduate students. Previously known as the Climate Leadership Challenge, the competition has been renamed the Global Stewards Sustainability Prize to reflect a broader focus on real-world solutions to sustainability.

Student exhibits at 2011 Climate Leadership Challenge
Proposals are sought for the 2012 Global Stewards
Sustainability Prize, an annual innovation
competition open to all UW-Madison students.

Organizers believe the competition, with more than $200,000 in prize money awarded so far and more than $50,000 up for grabs in 2012, is among the most lucrative college or university competition of its kind in the country.

Several winning teams have set root in the Madison area, bringing economic development opportunities to the city and state. And, organizers say, the contest is helping students from across campus understand the role they can play in environmental entrepreneurship and problem solving, while forging connections across disciplines.

"This is an investment that is making the world better and changing students' lives," says Carol Barford, interim director of the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment and an organizer of the Global Stewards Sustainability Prize.

"The goal here is to empower students to think of themselves as environmental problem solvers and innovators," she continues. "We want every student to think, 'What would I do; what's my idea?', and start discussing it at dinner, in the classroom and with friends."

All forms of innovation, whether technical or social in nature, are invited, as well as ideas from all disciplines.

"The culture of environmental sustainability is very synergistic with social media, social solutions and policy solutions, so that could include a broad range of student expertise and training," says Tracey Holloway, a professor of environmental studies (currently on sabbatical) who helps direct the competition. "We'd like to encourage that. Any student here at Wisconsin could be a real game changer."

"Sustainability is something that cuts across architecture, agriculture, the humanities, campus life, engineering and business," says Barford. "We encourage anyone, with big ideas or small, to develop a proposal and apply."

Proposals for the 2012 competition are due March 23. An optional one-page essay summarizing the proposal can be submitted by Feb. 17. Though not required, this "mini plan" will allow for direct, advance feedback from anonymous judges.

Up to eight finalists will receive $2,000 and be selected to present their proposals at the sixth annual Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference on April 16 at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. At the conference, a panel of judges will review the finalists' proposals and announce up to three winners of an additional $15,000.

True Local smart phone app
Three graduate students formed SnowShoeFood
LCC as part of the 2010 competition, later
launching the True Local smart phone app.

New this year is a $5,000 Healthy Places prize for the strongest proposal at the nexus of environment and health. Sponsored by the UW-Madison Global Health Institute and the Office of Sustainability, this award will be chosen by popular vote among Earth Day conference attendees.

Since the competition's inception in 2009, winners have gone on to patent their concepts, launch businesses and see their ideas implemented across the region and world.

Claus Moberg, Jami Morton and Matt Leudke " all now UW-Madison alumni " were awarded $15,000 for their smart phone application concept in the 2010 competition. The team formed SnowShoeFood LLC and launched the True Local app, a joint effort with local grocer Fresh Madison Market. The app has been downloaded nearly 1,500 times since its release a year ago.

"Now all three of them are working full-time on this and they've hired a number of other employees and interns," says Holloway."They're a growing Wisconsin business that would never have existed without the competition."

Undergraduate students Joseph Keuler, Matthew Kirk, Patrick Kirk and David Osmalov won the top prize of $50,000 in the 2011 competition and a free one-year lease in the University Research Park Metro Innovation Center. The interdisciplinary team of engineering, business, philosophy and chemistry students has continued to develop their concept for producing hydrogen from agricultural plant waste and has started an LLC, renewH2.

"Winning the [competition] provided the funds and incentive to fully research and explore our idea," says Matthew Kirk, an electrical and computer engineering major. He describes the transition from "typical student" to budding entrepreneur as a formative experience.

"When we first began researching the project, we were just four friends with an ambitious idea. Since winning, each LLC member has settled into a role and has carried out duties specific to that role to advance the project and the business," he says. "If you're excited about your idea, most of this comes naturally."

Global Stewards Sustainability Prize coordinator Chris Meyer is familiar with this transition.

As a mechanical engineering masters student in 2009, Meyer participated in the first Climate Leadership Challenge competition, receiving prize money that served as a start-up investment for his concept of a nonprofit incubator in Madison. In the fall of 2010 he opened Sector67, a 4100-square-foot nonprofit collaborative workspace where members can learn, teach and use a variety of mechanical, electrical and art equipment.

Winners of the 2011 Climate Leadership Challenge
John Noreika (far left) of the Global Stewards
Society, which funds the Global Stewards
Sustainability Prize, with members of the 2011
winning team and professor Tracey Holloway.

"The Climate Leadership Challenge investment was part of what launched Sector67 and now that, in turn, is an incubator for good ideas and economic growth," Meyer says.

Summarizing the Global Stewards Sustainability Prize, Holloway concludes, "We don't necessarily expect the idea that's hatched in a dorm room to be the same one that carries these students over the next four years of their life. But we're getting the ideas out into the public domain and guiding the students on a problem-solving, solution-driven course."

The competition is supported through a generous grant from the Global Stewards Society, which includes John F. and Mary Cooper; Gary and Ellora Cooper; Christine Cooper; John and Mary K. Noreika; Peter Vogel, Vogel Brothers Building Company; David Beck-Engel, J.H. Findorff & Son; and Scott J. Reppert, Superior Health Linens. The UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations, Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation also provide support.