UW engineering spinoffs win awards, including top honor, at Governor’s Business Plan Contest

// Engineering Physics, Chemical & Biological Engineering, Materials Science & Engineering

Tags: alumni, students

Photo of NovoMoto in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

This school for orphans in Mboka Paul, Democratic Republic of the Congo, now has a solar lighting system, donated by NovoMoto. In blue shirts are co-founder Aaron Olson (left) and his brother, Alex Olson. Photo courtesy of NovoMoto.

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A University of Wisconsin–Madison engineering spinoff won the grand prize and anther won a top award in its category in the 15th annual Governor’s Business Plan Contest on June 6, 2018.

Photo of Mehrdad Arjmand
Mehrdad Arjmand, co-founder of NovoMoto, celebrates winning the grand prize at the 2018 Governor’s Business Plan Contest. Photo credit: David Tenenbaum.

The grand prize went to NovoMoto, a social enterprise company that packages and sells solar lighting systems under an innovative rent-to-own program in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The lights replace expensive kerosene lighting, said co-founder Mehrdad Arjmand in accepting the award.

NovoMoto also snagged the business services category award.

The contest was organized by the Wisconsin Technology Council and sponsored by a wide range of public interest groups, technology businesses and providers of services to entrepreneurs.

The contest began by winnowing 196 entries from 56 Wisconsin communities to 12 finalists, who gave seven-minute pitches on Tuesday at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference on the UW–Madison campus.

“We are pleased, happy,” says Arjmand, who recently earned a PhD from UW-Madison in engineering mechanics and was advised by Materials Science and Engineering Professor Izabela Szlufarska. “NovoMoto provides electricity to off-grid communities in Africa by providing solar lighting systems. They are now using kerosene, and that’s unhealthy and dangerous. We help them pay for the system in small installments. People in rural Africa cannot afford $100 or $200 (up front) for a system. After a buyer pays the $2.15 per week payment, they receive a text with a code to unlock the system for another week. After three years, they own the system.”

Pyran won second place in the advanced manufacturing category for a patented method to convert biomass into a chemical widely used in paints and plastics, as well as the “Bright Idea Award.” Co-founder Kevin Barnett, who obtained a PhD at UW–Madison under the direction of Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor George Huber, noted that the chemical is usually sourced from crude oil. “We are the only source of renewable 1,5-Pentanediol and we already have interest from some big users,” Barnett says.

Author: David Tenenbaum