Softener sensor, airplane-control system win El Paso venture contest

Softener sensor, airplane-control system win El Paso venture contest – El Paso Times 3-12-14

By Vic Kolenc / El Paso Times

EvoAir CEO Michael Everett won the Professional Track of the Paso del Norte Venture Competition + Expo
EvoAir CEO Michael Everett won the Professional Track of the Paso del Norte Venture Competition + Expo

A University of Texas at El Paso team with a sensor that reduces the amount of salt needed to operate water softeners, and an El Paso startup developing an automated control system for small airplanes were the winners of the sixth annual Paso del Norte Venture Competition last week.

“When we were announced as the winner (of the professional division), I think I was in shock,” said Michael Everett, chief executive officer and founder of 5-year-old Evolved Aircraft Systems, or EvoAir. It beat out 18 other startups for the win.

“We have been doing this for quite awhile, and there always seems to be a bump in the road to overcome,” said Everett, 34, who has degrees in mechanical engineering from UTEP, and is working on a doctoral degree. Everett also competed as a student in the first two competitions in 2009 and 2010 when he was just forming his company.

EvoAir is developing a system to control a host of systems in small airplanes, similar to autopilot, Everett said.

“Unlike autopilot, however, our technology has been developed to function when the pilot is hand-flying the aircraft,” Everett said in an email.

Atlas Regeneration Technologies, a four-member UTEP team that hopes to be able to form a company to sell a unique water-softener sensor, beat out 19 other student teams from UTEP, New Mexico State University, and Mexico to win the student division of the competition.

“You learn things in books and classes and to do something more real was pretty neat,” said Malynda Cappelle, 37, leader of the team. “The judges understood our (eco friendly) message and thought it was a viable message and a broad arena.”

Cappelle is a doctoral student in civil engineering at UTEP and associate director of the UTEP Center for Inland Desalination Systems. The water softener sensor is the invention of the center’s director, Tom Davis, Cappelle said.

The sensor, which could be installed on residential and industrial water softeners, monitors water hardness, which reduces the amount of salt used in a softener, Cappelle said. That means less salt would be released into sewage systems, and ultimately into rivers, such as the Rio Grande, she said.

Water softeners are an $11 billion market worldwide, so the sensor has big potential, she said. And it could be modified to detect pollutants in water, she said.

Atlas and EvoAir each won $10,000 and a year of incubation at The Hub of Human Innovation, an El Paso incubator and one of the organizers of the venture competition.

Atlas also gets the chance to compete in May at the Global Venture Labs Investment Competition in Austin. It’s been dubbed the Super Bowl of venture competitions. American Water Recycling, another UTEP team, and winner of last year’s Paso del Norte Venture Competition, finished in the top 10 in the Austin competition last year. It’s now in the process of further developing the company.

A long list of venture experts from investment firms, companies, and other organizations judged the competition. The teams and startups had to make pitches to the judges. The student teams had to submit business plans.

“They were judged on whether they could explain the market pain — what problem they are trying to solve, what the market is, and how they plan to market” their product or service, said Nancy Lowery, assistant director of The Hub of Human Innovation.

Vic Kolenc may be reached at 915-546-6421.

Winners of 2014 Paso del Norte Venture Competition, and prizes:

Pro division

1st: Evolved Aircraft Systems, or EvoAir, $10,000 and year of incubation.

2nd: Ruskat Medical Group, $2,500 and six months of incubation.

Student division

1st: Atlas Regeneration Technologies, UTEP, $10,000 and year of incubation.

2nd: Polyverse, UTEP, $5,000.

3rd: Stratum Technologies, UTEP, $1,000.