A new company that uses the enzymes of bark beetles to control the devastating effects the beetles can have on a forest, EscaZyme Biochemicals, LLC, was awarded the $50,000 gold prize this week as the winner in the University of Nevada, Reno's Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition. The Monroe-Schuler Foundation silver prize of $5,000 went to ElectroVentures, Inc., a company that specializes in products for the $4 billion electronic dance music industry.
University alumnus Rick Sontag for whom the competition was named, and his wife, Susan, announced the winners via Skype at a luncheon ceremony at the Joe Crowley Student Union. Sontag's $1 million gift to the University created the competition in 2011.
During his announcement, Sontag emphasized how impressed he was with the quality of this year's submissions, a theme that was echoed by College of Business Dean Greg Mosier and Dave Croasdell, the Charles and Ruth Hopping Professor of Entrepreneurship and Sontag Competition coordinator.
The winning EscaZyme team includes Jennifer Ott, the company CEO who has a chemistry degree and is completing her MBA at the University this year, post-doctoral researcher Rubi Figueroa-Teran, the chief science officer and entrepreneurial champion of the project who also discovered one of the enzymes, and Claus Tittiger, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the University's College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources.
The enzymes, discovered in bark beetles from trees in the Lake Tahoe area, have the potential to be used for a wide range of products including the pesticide and insect attractant application selected as the starting place for the business venture. The company is already working with a potential first client.
"Our customers are governments, ranchers, timber companies, ski resorts, anyone who is interested in forest health and management," Ott said. "The company we visited is interested because our process produces very easily the compounds they need; a process that is usually time consuming and can be hazardous."
Excited about the cash reward, Ott said the company has a lot to do. "Our next step is to develop commercial-sized quantities over the next few months. We need to know how much we can make and how much to charge, then we'll begin our outreach for sales. We have momentum now."
EscaZyme was accepted earlier into a highly competitive and intense National Science Foundation business-validation program known as Innovation Corps or I-Corps. The $50,000 I-Corps grant, the University's Technology Transfer Office programs and continued use of a lab provided by Professor Gary Blomquist, chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, have also provided much-needed support for the company.
Silver winner, ElectroVentures, Inc. (EVI), currently operates an e-commerce site that sells clothing and accessories for music festivals, concerts and raves. The company is striving to be No. 1 in the electronic dance music market by providing the freshest product offerings and multiple revenue streams including an e-commerce site, scaled vending operations selling products at events across the nation, and a complete media department to create original content. Team members include River Jangda, a senior in management and marketing, Brad Cabanilla, MBA, Richard Corn, a junior in accounting and finance, and Hayreddin Ceker, who holds a master's degree in computer science.
EscaZyme was selected from among five finalists and 24 participating teams in this second year of the competition.