At their UC Davis lab before heading to the Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge finals, 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.
News Release

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

(Davis, CA) — 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, making them more economically viable.”

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

“The technology has both immediate application in the existing hydrogen-based fuel cell market and long-term extensible application in the much larger reformation and environmental catalyst markets,” Finkelor said. Walmart is a major sponsor of the Energy Efficiency Center and asked to hold the Better Living Business Plan Challenge’s West Coast regional at UC Davis.

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 meet with students and faculty to explore the commercial potential of their ideas.

Before heading to Bentonville, ECO Catalytics also learned it was among 10 semifinalists in the UC Davis Big Bang! Business Plan Competition, with hopes to advance to the finals on May 19.

Farsight said the team’s experience in Bentonville made a lasting impression. “It was a fantastic opportunity to present our business idea and compete with the best business schools in the country,” he said. “We gained valuable experience networking with the other innovative teams and experiencing Walmart’s unique culture first-hand.” Farsight even helped lead the traditional Walmart cheer for an auditorium of Walmart employees.

“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 for placing among the top three finalists with a 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.”

About the UC Davis Graduate School of Management

Established in 1981, the UC Davis Graduate School of Management is consistently ranked among the premier business schools in the United States and internationally. The school has nearly 600 MBA students enrolled in Full-Time MBA and Working Professional MBA programs on the UC Davis campus, in Sacramento and in the San Francisco Bay Area. For 16 years consecutive years, U.S. News & World Report has ranked UC Davis among the top 10 percent of MBA programs in the nation. The Economist’s 2010 survey ranks the school’s faculty quality No. 3 in the world.

Media Contacts:

    Tim Akin, Graduate School of Management, (916) 402-9270