Innovator Article

ECO Catalytics’ High-Tech Ink Drives Fuel Cells Forward
UC Davis Team Takes Third in Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge

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A team of UC Davis MBA students and campus researchers developing technology to lower the cost and improve the performance of fuel cells brought home third place, $5,000 in seed funding and valuable tips from executives who judged the 2011 Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge, which honors student entrepreneurship in environmental sustainability.

After winning the West Coast regional at UC Davis, the four-member ECO Catalytics team advanced to the finals held at Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., on April 21–22.

The UC Davis team emerged from a national field of more than 100 teams from 51 top universities to earn the berth to Bentonville. There they went head to head with semifinalists from Arizona State University, Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, SUNY Albany, the University of Arkansas, the University of Louisville, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The MIT team won.

Now in its fourth year, the competition challenges students to invent sustainable products or develop sustainable business solutions and present them to a panel of Walmart executives, suppliers and environmental organizations. Teams vie for $35,000 in prize money. Walmart partners with Net Impact and The Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, to stage the challenge.

ECO Catalytics has brought together MBA students Tomas Sudnius and John-Paul Farsight; Anthony Santamaria, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering; and Daniel Misicak, a post-doctoral researcher in electrochemistry and a UC Davis Center for Entrepreneurship Business Development Fellow. Their plan is based on UC Davis technology that significantly reduces the amount of high-cost platinum used in the thin ink membrane catalysts of electricity-generating fuel cells.

“The catalysts’ performance is also improved,” Santamaria explained. “As a result, considerable cost savings can be achieved when manufacturing fuel cells.”

Ben Finkelor, executive director of the UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center, said ECO Catalytics’ membrane material concept is projected to use 10 times less platinum while doubling performance of existing fuel cell catalytics.

Sudnius said the mentoring and feedback from the Center for Entrepreneurship’s new Angels on Campus program was instrumental in preparing for the Walmart competition. ECO Catalytics twice pitched their plan to angel investors, who visit campus to advise students and faculty.

ECO Catalytics also learned it was among five finalists in the UC Davis Big Bang! Business Plan Competition, advancing to the finals on May 19.

“Every year the ideas get brighter and the competition gets tougher,” said Greg Trimble, Walmart’s senior director of Global Energy Development and Reporting. He congratulated ECO Catalytics on its potentially game-changing clean energy solution: “This can bring costs way down and makes the promise of fuel cell technology for electricity generation that much closer to a cost-effective reality.” rays08.eps

At their UC Davis lab, the ECO Catalytics team continues to hone a business plan and commercialization path for technology that improves the performance and lowers the costs of fuel cells: (left to right) Anthony Santamaria, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering; MBA student Tomas Sudnius; Daniel Misicak, a post-doctoral researcher in electrochemistry and a UC Davis Center for Entrepreneurship Business Development Fellow; and MBA student John-Paul Farsight.

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