91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Michigan inventors compete in college clean tech venture challenge

I recently got a chance to hang out with Tom Brady.  

Nope, not the football star. 

But this Tom Brady is working on making a name for himself. Brady just wrapped up his Masters degree. He’s an aerospace engineer, and now he's also the chief financial officer of SkySpecs LLC.

He holds up something that looks half-insect/half-helicopter. It’s an autonomous flying robot. In other words... it has a mind of its own. Brady says it finds its way around with cameras and computer vision.

“Basically, what these things are: they carry sensors to places that an inspector would otherwise have to,” he says.

Say, down into a sewer or up to the top of a wind turbine.

“Instead of having the inspector climb, he just can fly our vehicle up to the top and collect all the data he needs,” says Brady.

Brady and his team – and their flying robot – are competing in the Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge. It’s a competition for college students from around the state. This year, the race started with 70 teams, those were whittled down to 27, and the day I visited, they were down to the final four.

Amy Klinke is an assistant director at the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan. She says this is not just an academic exercise. They want students to start new clean tech companies in the state... and so, they judge them with that in mind.

“Do they have a secret sauce that’s unique? Who is their customer? Do they have a business model that actually can generate revenue? Will they be around in five years? Do they really want this to go forward?” says Klinke.

This goal is backed up with some serious prize money. The first place winner takes home $50,000.

I bump into another of the finalists in front of a small white container shaped like a hexagon. Herbs spill out of the top, and on the bottom, little goldfish and comets are swimming around.

Brian Falther and his teammates created Future Tech Farm.

“Right now we have the system set up with some mint and some cilantro. It uses micro aquaponics. Aquaponics is a process of using fish to grow plants. So, the fish waste feeds the plants, and the plants feed us, and then we feed the fish and it’s a closed loop system,” he says.

He says he sees this as the appliance of the future.

“Kind of like a refrigerator in every home, where you’d grow all your fresh produce needs autonomously.”

They also made an app so you can control everything from your phone, and he says you’ll be able to compare your garden pod with your neighbor's through an online network (i.e. is your neighbor's lettuce growing faster? Maybe you need to adjust your nutrients).

Several other student teams are packed into a hallway outside an auditorium at the Ross School of Business at U of M. They’re huddled around poster boards and prototypes.

But Tom Kim and his teammate from Wayne State University don’t have a flashy display. Kim pulls their invention out of his pocket. It’s a lightbulb filled with liquid.

“We redesigned the LED. This is vegetable glycerin right here. What this does, it helps project the light in omni directions so you can see it from all angles,” he says.

He screws the conventional LED bulb and their bulb into a display board with sockets. They both glow brightly, but the liquid lightbulb gives off this beautiful, other worldly light.

Kim says he’s been impressed with his competitors.

“This place is filled with really great young minds and they all have great ideas and they’re all focused on the environment and it just feels great to be here,” Kim says.

Before long, the big moment arrives. Everyone heads into the auditorium for the winners announcement.

The liquid lightbulb comes in fourth... the futuristic farm ties with a bike sharing system for second place...

“And finally, in first place, with $50,000, University of Michigan, SkySpecs!”

So the flying robot wins the big prize.

The SkySpecs guys say they'll use that money to finish their prototype in time for a wind power expo in Chicago this year.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.