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Students to market lab technology in first-of-its-kind contest

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A Tech Navigator Challenge launching this month will put University of New Mexico students at the helm of technology transfer efforts by UNM and two of New Mexico’s national laboratories.

About 30 students divided into eight or nine teams will compete for a $10,000 first-place prize for the best marketing plan, plus second- and third-place winnings of $5,000 and $3,000. The teams will be working with real technologies that UNM, the Air Force Research Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories hope to commercialize.

It’s a first-of-its-kind competition in New Mexico, and nationally as well, because no other marketing challenge elsewhere has put students in the driver’s seat to commercialize innovation from national labs, said UNM Innovation Academy Executive Director Rob DelCampo.

“It’s unique across the country,” DelCampo said. “Some places use university technologies, but we’re the only ones using lab technologies and letting students figure things out on their own, albeit with mentors.”

The Air Force lab is the lead sponsor, providing $25,000 for the prizes and other costs, including nominal fees for professional mentors, plus an April 27 luncheon where students will pitch their business plans to a panel of judges. Bernalillo County also kicked in $3,000.

Applications are open until Wednesday for UNM and Central New Mexico Community College students. Participants will be broken into teams at a launch ceremony Monday at UNM’s Rainforest Building at the Innovate Albuquerque research and development hub Downtown, where the labs will deliver summaries of the technologies open for marketing.

City Alive’s Tech Navigator program, which operates at the Rainforest Building to help connect entrepreneurs and scientists with business-related resources, will work with students to provide guidance and mentors.

The technologies in play span a broad range of sciences. They include biotech innovation from UNM, sensing and measurement tools from Sandia to detect gasses and determine salinity in fluids and new microwave zoom antennas plus laser and electromagnetic technologies from the Air Force lab, DelCampo said. The challenge is to define broader potential markets and applications for those inventions, which currently have narrow scientific focuses.

That can help the labs in their own commercialization efforts, said Gabe Mounce, economic development lead for the Air Force lab.

“It serves a number of goals, including efforts to bolster the local and national economy, which is a national security issue for us, while building the students’ ability to form technology-based companies,” Mounce said.

For students, it provides real-world experience in technology transfer, said Lisa Kuuttila, head of the Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s tech-transfer office.

“Technology transfer is something of a nebulous concept for many people,” Kuuttila said. “This gives students hands-on experience in taking early-stage technology and thinking about how it can be marketed as a possible new product or business opportunity.”