A youthful Israeli team won second place in an international competition to develop innovative technologies than can benefit both society and financial investors.
Competing against 20 other entries from 11 countries, the Israeli project, initiated by a professor and four graduate students from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), aims at extracting and marketing "green" biodiesel fuel from microalgae.
The intense three-day competition, officially titled the Intel-Berkeley Technology Entrepreneurship Challenge (IBTEC) ended Nov. 15 on the UC Berkeley campus.
The Israeli group, which entered its project under the nascent company name of Negev Renewable Green Fuels (NRG Fuels), was awarded an oversized $10,000 check at the closing ceremony.
First place and $25,000 went to a German project on the early detection of breast cancer through intraoperative 3-D imaging. Brazil came in third with a navigation system for visually impaired people.
Avi Avidan, 28, who presented the biodiesel project to the judges, was elated by the second-place showing. "We were given only 15 minutes to explain our project and then were grilled for 10 minutes," he said.
The judges were not scientists but rather some 20 top venture capitalists from the San Francisco Bay Area, whose focus was as much on the commercial potential of the presentations as on their technical feasibility and social value.
Avidan ended the evening with 10 business cards from potential investors in his pocket and serious interest from a Brazilian and a Sino-American company. He spent most of the following two days working the phone to talk to his new contacts.
Joining him in Berkeley were three fellow honor students in the MBA program at BGU -- Roee Arbel, Noga Bar-El and Daniel Eisen -- who jointly developed the business plan for the project.
The scientific leader was professor Shoshana Arad, a veteran authority on algae growth and genetics. She heads the Institute for Applied Science at BGU, as well as the Ruppin Academic Center in Emek Hefer, but was unable to make the trip.
Avidan, who served as an artillery officer in the Israeli army for four years, holds degrees in both biotechnical engineering and business administration and works closely with Arad.
Microalgae differs from the more familiar algae and seaweed and is often detected on the windows of aquariums, said Avidan. The unicellular plant beats all other plants and vegetables in its high oil content and CO2 absorption. It requires little space for cultivation and can be converted to biodiesel by a fairly straightforward chemical process.
Another advantage is that microalgae is now being grown in Israel in a closed system of transparent, seawater-filled tubes, rather than open ponds, drastically lowering the chances for contamination.
Avidan and his colleagues are looking for initial investments for a pilot program, followed by a scaled-up system in about two years.
The Berkeley event was the final round for the two top winners of regional elimination competitions around the world.
The biodiesel project was almost eliminated when it placed only third in the Israel competition. However, one of the two top winners couldn't make it to the follow-up European competition in Bucharest, Romania, so Avidan's team went instead.
There the BGU group walked away with the first prize, automatically qualifying for the finals at Berkeley.
-- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Jewish Community Foundation Seeks Grant Proposals
The Jewish Community Foundation is again inviting innovative organizations to apply for a Cutting Edge grant of up to $250,000.
"Bottom line, what our grants committee is looking for are transformative ideas affecting a large group of people throughout the L.A. Jewish community, from religious to secular and affiliated to nonaffiliated," spokesman Lew Groner wrote in an e-mail. "In other words, really big ideas that will have major impact in our city across the Jewish spectrum."
This year, the foundation awarded $1.5 million in Cutting Edge grants to 10 local nonprofits working to alleviate social problems and strengthen Jewish life. The largest gifts of $250,000 over three years went to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for its Jewish Summer Overnight Camp Support Initiative and to LimmudLA, which in February will put on a four-day conference promoting Jewish learning and community building across religious divides.
-- Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer