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NuMat Technologies accepts the award certificate after winning the first Clean Energy Student Challenge. Chris Wilmer, far right, holds synthesized MOFs. From left to right, Omar Farha, Tabrez Ebrahim, Ben Hernandez and Chris Wilmer.

NU student entrepreneurs win $100,000 clean energy prize

by Kelly Gustafson
March 02, 2012


Jeff Henderson/ISEN

Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered a few remarks to all of the teams at the awards ceremony on Thursday night.

A team of Northwestern University student entrepreneurs who are paving the way to natural gas-powered vehicles won a $100,000 grand prize Thursday in the first Clean Energy Student Challenge. 

Chicago's Clean Energy Trust and the U.S. Department of Energy sponsored the challenge.

NuMat Technologies, the student team, won the prize in a competitive selection process that originally included a pool of more than 40 Midwest university student groups. 

The winning team includes Northwestern students Chris Wilmer, Ben Hernandez and Tabrez Ebrahim and Associate Professor Omar Farha. 

Their team has created a computer program that allows them to run through thousands of metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs, to find out which MOF is best-suited to store different kinds of gases. 

This technology makes it possible to outfit vehicles with tanks that could store natural gas, which burns cleaner than petroleum and is abundant in the United States. 

NuMat also won a $10,000 state-level prize, as did four other finalist ventures from universities in Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio.

Eight student startup companies who made it to Thursday's final round all gave brief presentations featuring their wide-ranging green technologies and business models for such ventures as fast-charging cell phone batteries and new ways to process metals.

“We really want to fill the pipeline with the new technology entrepreneurs who will be the next fundable companies,” said Clean Energy Trust Executive Director Amy Francetic. “One of the prime places to harvest [is] the universities.”

Three out of the eight student finalist teams represented Illinois, including two from Northwestern University and one from the University of Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered congratulatory remarks to all of the teams at an awards reception Thursday evening.

Small technology companies with big advancements in the pipeline competed for another $100,000 in funding and for contacts to get their businesses off the ground.


Hyrax Energy from Madison, Wis., won the early-stage business prize. The industrial biotechnology company is developing bio-refineries that produce low-cost fermentable sugars from cellulose-based biomass. The sugars can be sold to makers of plastics, fuels and chemicals. 

The small business challenge, in its second year, drew numerous applicants this time around after the Clean Energy Trust opened up the competition to the entire Midwest, instead of Illinois alone, said Robin Mordfin of Aileron Communications.

Without competitions such as the Clean Energy Challenge, the technologies might remain in the labs, never reaching the marketplace where it could have a positive impact, Mordfin said.

The event was open to the public and helped foster communications between the scientific community and the public. As Susan Berman, a lay person in her own terms, sat in the audience learning about new shrouds placed on wind cylinders she was struck with an idea.

“What if the shrouds were made of solar panel materials?” Berman said.

The Clean Energy Challenge gives innovators an opportunity to develop and market their game-changing ideas, said Sarah Jane Maxted from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the office that sponsored the grant money for both winning ventures.

“Installing [the companies] with the grants helps provide that catalyst to become a successful company down the road,” Maxted said.

Engineers, business men and women, scientists, lawyers and students mingled and networked in between presentation rounds. Mert Efe, a material science Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University, presented a technology that would revolutionize processing of metal sheets and foils at room temperature, saving energy and raw materials.

“Even if we don’t win today, we still have plans to go forward with established partners and try for other funding opportunities from DOE funding,” Efe said before the awards were announced. “The best part was we got to know a lot of people and made good contacts with potential customers.”

Last year’s Challenge winners have collectively raised more than $12 million in venture funding to create jobs and modernize the nation’s energy system.