By Daniel Perez
UTEP News Service
The leader of a team that won $10,000 at the Paso del Norte Venture Competition at The University of Texas at El Paso March 9 called the experience a “rush” for her, and a testament to the caliber of students at UTEP.
Eva Deemer, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering, and her teammates Alex Pastor and Diego Capeletti will take their business plan to provide “environmentally sound water recycling options at affordable prices” to two additional venture contests in coming months where the first prize is $100,000.
Deemer, a native El Pasoan who earned her bachelor’s in chemistry from UTEP in 2008, worked in research and development for several El Paso-based energy companies after graduation. She returned to UTEP a year ago and was encouraged to enter the fifth annual venture competition by her faculty mentors.
She teamed with Capeletti, an M.B.A. student, and Pastor, a junior economics major, in November and began to carefully craft a business plan for American Water Recycling (AWR). The team’s preparations included watching YouTube videos of similar competitions conducted at Duke University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“By the time we were done I felt as if we could compete with anyone in the country,” she said a few days after her team’s victory. “The competition was tough, but it was fun. The experience teaches you the tough realities of the business world.”
The key is AWR’s use of graphene, a carbon-based substance that is thin, strong and an efficient conductor of heat and electricity. Deemer said the company easily can pivot and use the same technology to tackle some of the world’s other environmental problems.
“We are on the verge of something big. This is not a joke technology. The sky is the limit,” she said during an interview in the UTEP offices of the Mike Loya Center for Innovation and Commerce, which helped sponsor the contest. The center is a joint venture between UTEP’s colleges of Engineering and Business Administration.
The AWR team competed against other participants from UTEP, New Mexico State University and the Instituto Tecnológico Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (Tec de Monterrey), whose projects included mobile wellness technologies, cloud-based collaborative platforms, cyber and energy security, the next generation of interactive advertising, solar technology and green construction materials. Each team had to create plans that involved forecasting, market research and financial cash flows. One new wrinkle this year was the inclusion of a professional track that allows some local companies to compete.
“The goal of the competition is to improve the entrepreneurial spirit and enhance our region’s economy,” said Aaron Cervantes Herrera, coordinator of the Loya Center. “Additionally, we try to compliment classroom theory with hands-on experience.”
Among the judges was Federica Pericle, Ph.D., chief executive officer of EP Pharma, and a part-time staff member at UTEP’s Center for Research Entrepreneurship and Innovative Enterprises (CREIE). After one presentation, she offered positive reinforcement and suggestions to improve the project’s scope and chances of future success.
“To sell a product, you just need to understand the product,” Pericle said during a break. “(She and her fellow judges) ask the questions that will improve their presentations and give them a competitive advantage. It’s an interactive process. It’s fun to see the creativity in action.”
Robert Nachtmann, D.B.A., dean of UTEP’s College of Business Administration, likened venture competitions to moot court in law school where students research a case, analyze all sides, and practice formulating concise ideas and ways to express them. The judges in the UTEP competition are in the business of launching businesses, so they know what to look for, the right questions to ask and the right advice to give.
“The University teaches the different disciplines needed to run a business, but this exercise helps students learn how to grow a business,” he said. “They need to learn how to pitch what they know to individuals and groups who could provide financial support. When you run a business, you deal with all kinds of operations, but you have to learn how to launch a business. That could be the most difficult thing of all.”
The successful synergy between the business and engineering students was the vision of the Loya Center, said Richard Schoephoerster, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s College of Engineering. He praised the competition as a perfect environment to learn what it takes to grow an idea through its various stages of development.
He wants the competition to have an impact on the region’s economic development, where winners will be in a position in the next five to 10 years to build their companies with highly qualified UTEP graduates, thus helping drive the region’s economy.
Among the other top competition sponsors were The Hub of Human Innovation and TVO North America.