Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2013 6:00 pm
By Robert Gray El Paso Inc. staff writer
Amidst final exams and graduation rehearsals at the University of Texas at El Paso last week, two business students and one from engineering were celebrating the launch of their technology startup company.
American Water Recycling would capitalize on one of the earth’s most valuable resources – water. The trio’s startup promises to save money for industry while cleaning the environment. But it also holds promise for the El Paso economy.
“You don’t need to convince people they need water,” says Eva Deemer, 28, the startup’s interim CEO and chief technology officer.
The venture, founded in April by Deemer, Diego Capeletti, 32, and Alex Pastor, 22, got a big boost two weeks ago when it became the first student venture at UTEP to win the UT Horizon Fund Student Investment Competition in Austin.
The win included $100,000 and advancement to the global competition, where the trio finished in the top 10, competing against Ivy League schools and universities from as far away as India and Thailand.
The technology the students recently patented would provide a better way to clean polluted industrial waste water, Deemer says.
It would save companies money, help clean the environment and, they hope, bring in profits.
Industries involved in refining oil or hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting water and chemicals into the ground to free oil and gas from shale-rock, use a lot of water, and the costs involved in handling and disposing of the polluted water are huge.
The industries the trio would focus on can pay as much as $8-million a year to dispose of polluted water, according to Deemer.
American Water Recycling’s filtering technology is based on a high-tech material called graphene.
“This is not a Brita filter,” says Deemer, who is working towards a doctorate in materials science and engineering at UTEP.
Graphene is a flexible carbon substance that is one of the strongest and lightest materials known to mankind. It’s stronger than diamonds yet flexible and, three years ago, won scientists at the University of Manchester the Nobel Prize in physics.
The material also happens to be really, really good at filtering water, Deemer says. The system the trio is developing, she says, is cheaper, faster and cleaner than other technology on the market now.
The students are seeking upwards of $700,000 to fund a year of operation and create a pilot program, Capeletti says. Right now, the startup is based at the Hub of Human Innovation business incubator in Downtown El Paso.
The university has been trying for years to create more technology spinoffs like American Water Recycling, with mixed results, and officials hope the startup business is only the beginning. So do those interested in local economic development that believe El Paso has the potential to become a technology hub – the “silicon border.”
That tech sector, the thinking goes, would provide more jobs in El Paso for UTEP engineering and biotech students who often have to leave the city to find employment.
While most of their peers are job hunting as they graduate, the trio says they are not.
“We just made our own jobs,” Deemer says.
The university has also been trying to build stronger ties between the College of Engineering and the College of Business to better connect engineers who have ideas with businesspeople who have business plans.
A $10-million donation made by Mike Loya, president of one of the world’s largest oil trading companies and a UTEP graduate, gave the effort a big boost almost two years ago
“Thanks to Mike Loya’s gift to UTEP’s colleges of Business Administration and Engineering, we have now planted the UTEP flag as a leader of academic integration that will result in market success for the state of Texas and the nation,” said Robert Nachtmann, dean of UTEP’s College of Business Administration, in a statement.
The new Mike Loya Center for Innovation and Commerce, as well as UTEP’s Materials Research and Technology Institute, played a major role in bringing, Deemer, an engineer, together with Capeletti, who graduates Saturday with an MBA, and Pastor, an undergraduate business major.
The three formed the company to compete in the local venture competition in March.
“We all met at my house after Thanksgiving for lattes and tea,” Deemer says.
They won the local competition and went on to win the statewide competition and advance to the semifinal round of the Global Venture Labs Investment Competition.
“I was already working with graphene and people had come to me with their problems, but I didn’t think of it as a business,” Deemer says.
What if they fail?
“The best part of graphene is, if it doesn’t work out, there are a million other things you can do with graphene,” Deemer says.