San Diego universities, government and industry rally around local Clean-Tech cluster

November 06, 2008

San Diego professors who are developing technologies that will fuel the continued growth of the region's "clean tech cluster" recently received a financial boost through the 2008 Clean Tech Innovation Challenge.

The Clean Tech Innovation Challenge is a partnership between the City of San Diego, UC San Diego's William J. von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and San Diego State University (SDSU). The program is designed to accelerate the commercialization of clean technologies out of university labs as part of the city's goal to promote the growth of the local clean tech industry. Program participants include faculty from UC San Diego, SDSU, University of San Diego and Alliant International University. Qualcomm, Inc. co-sponsored the first grant awards.

"This Clean Tech initiative is an example of how the San Diego community, its universities, local government and the private sector can join forces to create economic growth in the region around technology sectors," said Rosibel Ochoa, the von Liebig Center's acting executive director.

Researchers from UC San Diego and SDSU will receive funding and additional assistance to develop and commercialize new solar technologies, unique ways to convert waste heat to electricity, and novel methods of extracting biodiesel from algae.

"Clean tech is a natural extension of some of the academic and commercial strengths here in San Diego, including electronics, chemistry and biochemistry," said Mike Rondelli, director of the San Diego State Research Foundation.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and leaders from local universities and San Diego's technology and business communities industry gathered on Oct. 30 to honor the local researchers receiving grants at the 2008 Clean Tech Innovation Challenge Awards Ceremony, which was sponsored by the law firm Morrison & Foerster.

Mayor Jerry Sanders, said during the awards event, "The universities represented here tonight have literally put San Diego on the map. Clean tech is the latest example."

As part of the Clean Tech Innovation Challenge, each researcher nets $50,000, plus business advisory services from the von Liebig Center's consultants. In addition, a team of MBA students from the University of San Diego or Alliant International University will work with each professor in order to conduct market research and create a business plan around the technology. The professors can continue working with their advisor in developing a commercialization plan for the technology and to introduce them to potential funders.

Each grant will support the development of prototypes or the generation of key data that is needed to demonstrate the commercial viability of the technology. The expected timeline for the completion of this program is 12 months. In addition, the awardees have access to other programs like CONNECT's Springboard and the Tech Coast Angeles' Seed track program. They can also seek partnerships with corporations to further develop their technologies.

Ochoa said programs like the von Liebig Center and the Clean Tech Initiative are critical to creating and growing nascent industries. Many researchers, she said, desire to move their inventions into the marketplace but often times lack the resources and funding to make that a reality. This so-called "Valley of Death" is created when federal funding runs out and venture capitalists see the science as too risky to put money into.

"Many of these technologies are so early stage that many investors don't fund them," Ochoa said. "The importance of a program like the Clean Tech Initiative is it allows these researchers to move their technologies further up the value chain so they become attractive to investors or a company to help move them forward.

"UC San Diego is becoming an experimental laboratory for clean technology," she added. "The von Liebig Center is a platform that can be used to demonstrate how these inventions can be turned into commercial technologies."

Ochoa said the Clean Tech Innovation Challenge is unique because it is a private-public partnership.

"The local clean technology industry could be as big as the telecommunications or biotechnology industry, but it requires a concerted effort," she said. "It's important to have this type of public-private partnership to create economic growth and jobs."

Jacques Chirazi, program manager for the City of San Diego Clean Tech Initiative, said the program is right in line with San Diego's famed success of brining innovations from the lab to the marketplace.

"Qualcomm and Cymer are great examples of that," Chirazi said. "We need to continue to tap into the knowledge we have at our local research institutions and universities like UC San Diego and SDSU.

"San Diego has a lot of homegrown technology and science that we can nurture and grow," he added. "The von Liebig Center is a unique model to help this region accomplish that. The center has been recognized as one of the best models in the nation for accelerating research in the nation. The center has a very well designed process of bringing technology from concept to commercialization."

Chirazi said one of the goals of the Clean Tech Innovation Challenge is to inspire innovation in this growing field by encouraging more local researchers, corporations and the San Diego business community to participate in the program.

The following is a brief description of the Clean Tech Innovation Challenge winners and their projects:

Paul Yu, Electrical and Computer Engineering professor, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering
Multiple Quantum Wells for Solar Spectral Concentrator and Optical Energy Transport Technology: In this project, Paul Yu is working on developing new solar-power technologies. In particular, Yu is developing an efficient solar spectral concentrator that will serve as the key component of a technology for transforming a broad-spectral width solar beam into optical energy that can be massively transported via optical fibers to user locations. The solar spectral concentrator can potentially advance the current generation of solar energy collection. Today's photovoltaic (PV) systems are often based upon directly converting solar energy directly into electrical energy. Yu's technology, in contrast, would enable efficient transport and distribution of energy in optical form before final conversion and usage. This will allow for flexible yet direct use of solar energy, and will take advantage of any advances in PV systems. Once established as an alternate way to power up the utilities using solar energy, this proposed technology could be employed broadly world wide.

Yu Qiao, Structural Engineering professor, UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering
Developing Ultrahigh-Efficiency Thermal-Energy Harvesting Materials: In this proposed project Qiao and his team are developing unique ways to convert waste heat to electricity by using a nanoporous system. A nanoporous material is a solid that contains nanometer sized pores. This technique re-investigates a mechanism that has long been over-looked and uses it to convert wasted heat to electricity with high efficiency and high power density. The specific goals of this project are to perform comprehensive characterization experiments on nanoporous systems under various conditions; to develop a prototype that can harvest useful electricity from ambient temperature; and to develop a presentation and demonstration set for potential partners, investors, customers, and/or licensees.

John J. Love, Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, San Diego State University
Bio-diesel from Cell Membranes: Utilizing Protein Design to Re-Engineer Natural Enzymes for the Extraction of Biodiesel from Cell Membranes: The goal of this project is to process biodiesel from algae. Biodiesel production entails the use of significant amounts of energy for heating, as well as the use of harsh chemicals such as strong bases and/or lye. Love and his team propose to eliminate these costly needs by re-engineering natural protein enzymes such that they efficiently extract fatty acids from membranes and chemically convert them to fatty acid methyl esters (FAMEs), the primary molecules in biodiesel. Examples of membrane sources include bacteria or yeast grown on sugar (glucose) as an energy source or micro-algae grown by way of photosynthesis.
-end-


University of California - San Diego

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