The Times West Virginian

July 28, 2013

Area awards competitions shining spotlight on creativity

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Several awards competitions in the area are shining a spotlight on game-changing innovations and creative companies.

TechConnect West Virginia is holding its first technology innovation awards event, called the Spirit of Innovation Awards.

These honors will recognize innovations and the successes of innovative professionals and companies around the state, said Anne Barth, executive director of the nonprofit coalition, which focuses on the advancement of the state’s high-technology economy.

The new awards will include five categories: Innovator of the Year, StartUp Innovation of the Year, Student Innovator of the Year, Outstanding Woman in Technology and Investor of the Year.

TechConnectWV began accepting nominations in the middle of July, and all entries are due by Aug. 30. Anyone can make a nomination, and people can nominate themselves.

Interested persons can visit www.techconnectwv.org and click on “Events” to download an awards application or find out more information about the competition.

Barth said she’s excited to see the nominations that TechConnectWV receives, and hopes to get a wide range of applications.

A selection committee, made up of individuals from private industry, the academic community and the public sector, will work together to choose one winner from each of the five categories, she said. TechConnectWV will give preference to innovations that fall within the four technology sectors that the organization targets, which include advanced energy, chemicals and advanced materials, biotechnology, and biometrics and identity management.

“We want to be on the look out for innovations that have produced the most change, whether that is in terms of creating an entire new market or expanding a market,” Barth said.

She said the judges will consider whether an innovation has future market potential and led to revenue growth and job creation. They’ll be looking for technologies that could really have an impact.

On Oct. 22 at the Waterfront Place Hotel in Morgantown, TechConnectWV will recognize the award winners during a banquet that is part of the Science,

Technology and Research Symposium. The organization is in the process of working out the details of the prizes and finding a dynamic guest speaker who can talk about innovation from hands-on experience, Barth said.

“We hope that this will be another activity that helps us grow our innovation ecosystem in the state, which will lead to economic diversification,” she said. “Our hope is that by highlighting and showcasing success stories, we can spur additional activity in these areas that will create jobs and new companies.”

The competition is part of the scope of work that TechConnectWV is doing through a grant it received from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, Barth said. The organization is also looking for sponsors for the awards. Those interested in sponsorship can email Barth at anne@techconnectwv.org.

TechConnectWV is involved in two other competitions. The organization is helping to promote the upcoming Shale Gas Innovation Contest as a partner, and is also a sponsor of the TransTech Energy Business Development Conference. Barth urged people in West Virginia to get involved in both.

“I strongly encourage West Virginians to apply for both of these contests, whether you’re a student, a researcher in a lab, or someone working in their own garage,” she said. “This is an opportunity to identify potential investors and partners and move your project forward.”

The Shale Gas Innovation Contest, organized and facilitated by the Shale Gas Innovation & Commercialization Center in State College, Pa., was a Pennsylvania-only contest for the the last two years. But this year, West Virginia is part of the action.

The Shale Gas Innovation & Commercialization Center, founded in March of 2011, is part of Ben Franklin Technology Partners, which is an economic development agency across Pennsylvania. The four regional offices of Ben Franklin Technology Partners work together to promote innovations in the shale gas industry.

The natural gas business is huge, and there are so many opportunities for innovations to make all the related components better, faster and cheaper, said Bill Hall, director of the center in State College, Pa.

He said the entity assists innovators and researchers in getting their technology or innovation accepted into the marketplace. The Shale Gas Innovation Contest, now in its third year, is one way that the center is striving to meet that goal.

In an effort to create a stronger presence, the center decided to take the competition to West Virginia this year. It received a grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation to expand the contest, Hall said.

TechConnectWV, West Virginia University’s Office of Research & Economic Development, and the INNOVA Commercialization Group, an initiative of the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation in Fairmont, are some of the main partners that are helping to get the word out about the competition in the state.

“There are a number of organizations and entities advancing technologies and creating new solutions within this sector to include West Virginia University, National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), MATRIC, and numerous small business and entrepreneurs,” said Guy Peduto, director of INNOVA. “Expanding into West Virginia provides numerous opportunities for both regions to create awareness of new technologies and applications, foster collaborative research and development and look to new funding and investment sources.”

On Oct. 1, small companies — with under $10 million in revenue — in the shale gas industry that have a technical product or service that is innovative in some way can begin applying for the competition online at www.sgicc.org.

The entries will be narrowed down to 12 finalists, who will each give presentations in May. Hall said the sponsors of the competition also serve as the judges, and are seasoned veterans in the industry with their own strong opinions.

“It’s fun to be really engaged with people who are very much committed to this process and have a heated debate,” he said.

The Shale Gas Innovation Contest will have three winners, and at least one — as stipulated by the Benedum Foundation grant — will be from West Virginia. Each winner will be awarded $25,000.

This past year, the competition received 70 total applications, and a variety of innovative ideas were considered. With the tremendous amount of innovation in West Virginia, Hall doesn’t think it will be difficult to get a lot of good applications from the state.

He said he’s really looking forward to having people from West Virginia in the competition, and it’s been a pleasure to work with the partners in the state.

The competition has let to business partnerships between finalists and sponsors in the past, Hall said.

“We’re really looking to make something happen that would not have happened without our involvement,” he said. “Once those things happen, it’s a success.”

Peduto said the competition is giving INNOVA’s portfolio companies — as well as any West Virginia businesses — the chance to make presentations on a larger stage. INNOVA is encouraging the following companies to take part in the contest: AFS of WV, which focuses on natural gas vehicle conversion; Berkley Springs Instruments, which has created an advanced sensor technology for measuring internal pipeline corrosion; Aither Chemical, which has developed proprietary, patent pending, next generation ethane cracker plants; and Alba Scientific, the developer of a unique, environmental water sensor.

The competition provides invaluable opportunities for awareness, collaboration and potential investment, Peduto said.

“We will also look at the presenters as potential collaborators with companies and institutions we are working with,” he said of INNOVA. “A presenter or two may prove to be a potential investment opportunity.”

Another competition coming up is the TransTech Energy Business Development Conference, which will take place Nov. 6 and 7 at the Waterfront Place Hotel in Morgantown. The WVU National Research Center for Coal and Energy, or NRCCE, is a cosponsor.

Carl Irwin, director of the Division of Energy Efficiency at the NRCCE, said the conference, in its second year, focuses on spinoff companies and new startups in the area of TransTech Energy, which is short for transformational or transitional energy technologies.

The economy is heavily dependent on fossil energy, and the country can’t go totally green or renewable overnight, he said. These technologies are centered on working with fossil energy and TransTech toward an economy that is lower carbon, has more efficient manufacturing, and creates more jobs.

At the TransTech Energy Business Development Conference, startup companies will make short presentations about their operations to panels of judges, which will include investors and industry experts. During the “investor pitches,” each competitor will try to explain what makes their company inviting and profitable, and then the judges will have a change to ask questions, Irwin said.

He said it’s exciting to see all of these committed people, who believe in their companies and put their heart and soul into their work, try to raise money to make their operations grow.

Last year, there were 13 pitches for funding. The judges decided to split $25,000, which was provided by cosponsors, between two award winners — one from Pittsburgh, Pa., and one from Bristol, Va. This year, the judges will again choose the number of winners based on the amount of prize money available.

However, the big prize is not necessarily the money award, Irwin said.

He said a competitor could impress a potential investor who is present at the conference and likes what they’re doing. A large company could also take an interest in a small startup and work to help the new business as a strategic partner.

Any representative from a startup company who wants to make a pitch for funding should apply before the end of August at transtechenergy.org. Anyone from across the country is welcome to participate.

Irwin said the general public and investors are invited to attend the conference to get a sense of the excitement of these new companies based on research. Persons wishing to come can register online up until the day of the conference. There was a good turnout from the community last year, with more than 130 participants, he said.

Unfortunately, no West Virginia companies made pitches for funding during the 2012 event, which Irwin said was disappointing. But the organizers are working hard to change that this year and get pitches from WVU and across the state.

“West Virginia is an energy state and we want to try to turn the spotlight more to the small startup company,” Irwin said.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.