“All the teams participating in the Rice Business Plan Competition were impressive, so getting 3rd place was both exciting and humbling"
spotLESS Materials CEO
spotLESS Materials LLC, a start-up company developed from research conducted in the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering, won third place and $367,500 at the 2019 Rice Business Plan Competition (RBPC) on April 6.
Birgitt Boschitsch, former doctoral student and spotLESS CEO, Jing Wang, PhD graduate and technical advisor, Nan Sun, current PhD student researcher, and Tak-Sing Wong, the Wormley Early Career Professor and chief technology officer, participated in the RBPC to market their innovative liquid-entrenched smooth surface (LESS) coating, a spray-able, anti-fouling coating that can address sticky problems across industries. For example, it can be applied to toilet and sanitation facilities.
Developed by Wang, the technical lead of the project, it dramatically decreases the amount of water needed when flushing a toilet, by more than 90 percent.
In their RBPC pitch, the team wrote, “We have developed a robust bio-inspired, liquid-, sludge-, and bacteria-repellent coating that can be applied in minutes in ambient conditions. This coating can transform sticky surfaces into self-cleaning ones.”
By creating a self-cleaning surfaces, this impactful tech could mitigate hazards and costs associated maintaining surfaces prone to contamination. It could even be adopted to save millions of gallons of water every day that can be directed towards other important activities or to drought-stricken areas or to regions experiencing chronic water scarcity. Even in communities with access to clean water, the use of this product would conserve precious resources and provide cost-savings.
The team started in sanitation, but noted that sticky problems are ubiquitous and have consequences across industries, from automotive to marine and beyond.
They added, “Our goal is to leverage our team’s materials expertise to solve ‘sticky problems’ across various industries.”
While it wasn’t their first big win, taking third place at the RBPC, one of the world’s largest student pitch competitions, represents a critical turning point for the start-up.
Boschitsch said, “This financial investment will help us fund business development activities key to acquiring our first paying customers. In addition to the funding, this win gives us credibility that can help us attract business talent, strategic partners, etc. Importantly, this win also gives us exposure to and connections with leaders in various industries who are willing to share their expertise and experience with us. Their deep understanding of the needs in a certain field or industry can point us to the customers with the greatest need for our coating solutions.”
As a participants in the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps National Team in the past and as current recipients of an NSF SBIR Phase I grant, the researchers receive additional support in the form of entrepreneurial education, mentoring, and funding to accelerate the translation of knowledge derived from fundamental research into emerging products and services that can attract subsequent third-party funding. spotLESS has also participated in many Invent Penn State programs to further their entrepreneurial journey, including the Ben Franklin TechCelerator program.
“All the teams participating in the Rice Business Plan Competition were impressive, so getting 3rd place was both exciting and humbling,” Boschitsch said. “I was so proud of our team, so grateful for the mentors who helped equip us, and so overwhelmed by the support.”
(Story by Erin Hendrick)