Off to the races

2 Houston student teams to compete in Shell’s international eco-friendly driving challenge

Two Houston student teams are competing in Shell's international competition. Courtesy of Shell

What started as a bet in the '30s has evolved into the Shell's Eco-marathon. The competition challenges high school and college students to engineer the fuel-efficient vehicles. And at this year's Shell Eco-marathon Americas, two teams will be representing Houston.

Students from Rice University and James E. Taylor High School are competing in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas, which begins April 3 and wraps up April 6. This year's competition is being held at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California, and will include more than 90 teams from high schools and colleges throughout North and South America.

That's a far cry from the competition's origins. Shell's first fuel efficiency competition took place in 1939, when two Illinois scientists struck a friendly bet over who could engineer a vehicle that ran the furthest on a gallon of gas. The company held an employee competition that year and, save for around a decade and a half in the '70s and '80s, the competition has been held in some capacity every year.

"We really needed to get more young people interested in technology careers," says Pam Rosen, general manager of the Shell Eco-marathon. "It [doesn't] even need to be with Shell. It's more about the method, science, and helping [students[ gravitate toward those opportunities."

The Shell Eco-marathon has adapted with the decades. Students design vehicles that run on gas, diesel, and biofuels, as well as batteries and electricity. Vehicles fueled by GTL (gas-to-liquid) and hydrogen have also competed in the Eco-marathon, Rosen says.

"It kind of ebbs and flows toward what we see the automotive manufacturers trending toward," Rosen says.

The teams from Rice University is a returning presence to the Eco-marathon, while the team from James E. Taylor High School is competing in the Eco-marathon for its first time. Both teams engineered battery-powered electric urban concept vehicles, Rosen says, and describes "urban concept vehicles" as being similar to Smart cars.

The team that takes the top prize in the Americas' urban concept vehicle competition will compete in the Eco-marathon's regional qualifiers in London. As for the lucky winner? They'll head to Italy, where they'll get to drive their vehicle on the racetrack used in the San Marino Grand Prix in Marino, Italy, Rosen says.

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Building Houston

 
 

Panelists from the University of Houston and Houston Methodist discussed tech transfer challenges and opportunities for academic innovators. Photo courtesy

Groundbreaking and disruptive innovations across industries are coming out of research institutions, and their commercialization process is very different from other startups.

An expert panel within Technology transfer discussed some of the unique obstacles innovators face as they go from academia into the market — like patenting, funding, the valley of death, and more.

Missed the conversation? Here are eight key moments from the panel that took place at the University of Houston's Technology Bridge on Wednesday, May 19.

This event was hosted by InnovationMap and University of Houston.

“If your technology can immediately impact some industry, I think you should license out your technology. But if you think that the reward is much higher and does not yet match something in the industry, you should go the high risk, high reward path of doing it yourself. That’s a much more challenging. It takes years of work.”

— Hadi Ghasemi, co-founder of Elemental Coatings and Cullen associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, says on how tech transfer usually happens via those two pathways. Ghasemi explains that it also depends on the academic's passion for the product and interest in becoming an entrepreneur.

“There’s a mismatch in that you can have a really clinically impactful technology but still not have money to develop it into a product.” 

— Rashim Singh, co-founder of Sanarentero and a research assistant professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy, says on the different priorities from within academia and within the market.

“What I’ve seen is if you know you want to patent something, tell the right people early. Make sure you have the right players involved. Our tech office already has venture, Pharma, etc. partners that can help with the patent process.”

— Ginny Torno, administrative director of innovation and IT clinical systems at Houston Methodist

“You don’t need to be fully transparent about your technology. As a company, you need to have some secret sauce."

— Ghasemi says on the patent and paper publishing process. Academics are used to publishing their research, but when it comes to business, you need to hold some things close to the chest.

“One of the most important piece the UH Tech Bridge has provided is the wet lab space to develop these technologies a little further toward commercialization. … Wet lab is very precious space in Houston specifically because there isn’t much here.”

— Singh says on how important access to lab space is to the entrepreneur.

"“You’re starting to see more and more organizations that have innovation arms. ... There are a lot of focus on trying to make Houston another innovation hub, and I think there is more support now than even a few years ago.”

— Torno says on what's changed over the past few years, mentioning TMC3 and the Ion.

“Try to serve private capital as soon as possible. The grant money comes, and those are good and will help you prove out your technology. But once you have private money, it shows people care about your product.”

— Ghasemi says as a piece of advice for potential tech transfer entrepreneurs.

“The biggest gap is to arrange for funding — federal, private, etc. — to support during the valley of death.”

— Singh says on the struggle research-based startups, especially in drug discovery, faces as they fight to prove out their product and try to stay afloat financially.

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