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May 30, 2019 | Local middle and high school students pitch innovative nanoscience solutions to real-world problems at CNSI’s Nanovation Competition

by Meghan Steele Horan

(photo credit: Marc Roseboro/CNSI)

Ten teams of middle and high school students from the greater Los Angeles area competed as finalists in the California NanoSystems Institute’s third annual Nanovation Competition last week.

During the “Shark Tank” style competition, the teams pitched their cutting-edge nanoscience-based business proposals to a panel of judges made up of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and UCLA faculty and staff. In addition to presenting the hard-hitting science behind their products, the students also described their business plan which covered topics like product development and market analysis.

To help prepare the students, the teams and their teacher leaders were paired with UCLA graduate student mentors who participate in the CNSI education program led by materials scientist Dr. Rita Blaik, the Institute’s Education Manager.

“The Nanovation Competition is a great opportunity for UCLA STEM graduate students to learn about and flex their entrepreneurial muscles while also giving back to the greater LA community by mentoring high school and middle school students,” said Blaik. “The hugely important intersection of high technology and business is something that most scientists and engineers don’t get any exposure to until they are faculty, much less as students.”

Maggie Fox, a graduate student currently studying materials science and engineering, mentored students from Lincoln Middle School, one of two middle schools in the competition. Their product used sorbothane as a shock protector in football helmets to decrease player injuries. To prepare for the competition, Fox encouraged her team to clearly state the problem and their solution in a way that a layperson could understand.

After seeing their pitch, Fox said, “They performed well under the pressure of competing with older students; I thought they did great!” She felt that her students had confidence in themselves and each other, which showed during their presentation.

Jeanette Chipps, a chemistry teacher from Granada Hills High School, participated as a teacher leader in the Nanovation Competition for the first time. During the competition, her students pitched their invention of a low-cost, portable DNA amplification and visualization unit available for purchase by high schools, which would provide students access to a technology that is not typically available in the classroom.

“Our students built their prototype already; they learned how to 3D print and how to code,” said Chipps. “Nanoscience is something that they typically do not have access to on our campus, yet it’s so important for the future.”

When it came to creating a business plan, Chipps also learned along with her students.
“That was really new for me,” said Chipps. “Watching them go through and figure out how to do marketing, what kind of opportunities there are, how to perform a market analysis. They really learned a lot about becoming an entrepreneur.”

All participating teams received $100 in science classroom supplies and a finalist trophy. The top three winning teams, which received additional prizes for science classroom supplies, were:

  • 1st place ($2,000): Fairmont Preparatory Academy | BOA | Silver nanoparticle-based wrap to prevent the spoilage of meat during transport.
  • 2nd place ($1,000): Valencia High School | UltraClear | Silica aerogel water filter to remove microplastics from drinking water.
  • 3rd place ($500): Lincoln Middle School | NanoProtector | Using sorbothane in football helmets to decrease concussions.

The Nanovation Competition was live streamed through the CNSI YouTube channel and is available streaming on demand.

The CNSI would like to thank the Nanovation Competition sponsor, the Environmental Research Advocates.