Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, February 15, 2013

U-M team wins top prize at Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge

A team of U-M graduate students won the $50,000 top prize Friday in the Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge for their unmanned-aerial-vehicle technology.

SkySpecs LLC is developing small, robotic, four-propeller helicopters that could remotely gather inspection data from hard-to-reach or hazardous places in infrastructure such as bridges and wind turbines.


Tom Brady (left) and Ryan Moore (right) introduce their team's prize-winning project, SkySpecs, at the 2012-13 Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge. (Photo by Joseph Xu, College of Engineering)

“It has been a humbling experience to receive recognition from the Michigan entrepreneurship community. This is the next step to help us capitalize on this exciting opportunity,” said SkySpecs co-founder Danny Ellis, a graduate student in aerospace engineering.

Established by U-M and DTE Energy, the annual competition encourages student technologists from colleges and universities across Michigan to transform clean-tech ideas into viable ventures.

"DTE Energy founded the Clean Energy Venture Challenge five years ago to encourage students to become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses here in Michigan" said Knut Simonsen, president of DTE Energy Ventures. "We are excited to work with these entrepreneurs as they transform ideas and technologies into successful startups.”


Twenty-two teams from 10 Michigan colleges and universities made it to the semifinal round of the competition. Each team participated for the full six-months of the challenge and received mentorship, up to $2,000 in prototype funding, intensive training on lean business formation, and critical feedback on their ideas from domain experts.

The competition culminated Friday afternoon with a project showcase and awards ceremony featuring keynote remarks from Don Runkle, CEO of EcoMotors, a Michigan-based startup that manufactures eco-friendly combustion engines. Reflecting on obstacles faced during his own entrepreneurial journey, Runkle encouraged students to imagine the impossible and invent the future.

“Sell the dream, but sell that you can deliver the dream. Youthful enthusiasm grounded in reality makes up for age and experience,” Runkle told the students gathered at the awards ceremony.

He also shared his thoughts on Michigan as a place to start a business.

“The Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge covers important topics in energy, from new energy sources to energy storage to conservation and efficiency. Michigan is the right place for creating disruptive technologies in all of these areas. The state has fabulous schools and universities and a terrific high tech workplace.”

According to Ellis of SkySpecs, participating in the challenge helped the team to consider the alternative energy applications of its device.

“Prior to the competition, we were focused primarily on bridge inspection, but we pivoted to wind turbine inspection after discovering an unmet market need in that segment,” Ellis said.

Ellis and fellow Michigan engineers Thomas Brady, Ryan Moore, Samuel DeBruin, and Pat Senatore, will use the prize money to develop their first inspection-ready prototype.

Two teams were awarded the $15,000 second place prize: Kettering University team Future Tech Farm, which is developing personal farming systems that allow individuals to grow fresh produce in their own homes; and U-M team A2B Bikeshare, which is building software and hardware to create a better bike-sharing system, including a solar-powered touchscreen that mounts to handlebars.

The $5,000 fourth place prize went to Signal Tech Detroit from Wayne State University, which is developing greener, brighter, and more sustainable LED lighting solutions. In addition to the top four teams, seven other teams received $1,000 in category and special achievement prizes. A total of 15 prizes were awarded.

The judging panel consisted of local venture capitalists, along with members of the academic and business communities, and experienced entrepreneurs. Projects were evaluated based on criteria such as market need, customer feedback, team, and viability of business model.

The competition is part of a national effort encouraging young entrepreneurs to develop greener energy solutions through President Obama's Startup America campaign. The winner of the Michigan contest will advance to a regional competition in Chicago this spring, and eventually could have a shot at a national grand prize in Washington, D.C., this summer.

“We’re looking for real entrepreneurs,” said Doug Neal, executive director of the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship, which administers the competition. “When we interview teams for the competition, we ask them what they would do if they didn’t get in. If they say they’re going to do it no matter what, they have a better chance of being selected. It was great to witness the tremendous progress of all the talented, passionate, dedicated student entrepreneurs from across the state who participated in the competition this year.”

Beyond U-M, Kettering and Wayne State, participating universities include: Western Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Central Michigan, Grand Valley State, Northwood and Oakland.

Additional Clean Energy Venture Challenge sponsors include Lawrence Technological University, Baker College of Flint, DTE Energy, MASCO Corp. Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, Dow Corning, Google, and Next Energy. Partners include the Stephen M. Ross Energy Club, Energy Institute, Center for Entrepreneurship and MPowered.