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NuMat Technologies’ leadership team, left to right: Ben Hernandez ’13, Tabrez Ebrahim ’13, Omar Farha and Chris Wilmer

NuMat Technologies’ leadership team, left to right: Ben Hernandez ’13, Tabrez Ebrahim ’13, Omar Farha and Chris Wilmer

On a roll

Student startup NuMat wins another big competition for clean energy technologies

By Megan Fellman

6/21/2012 - Northwestern University’s NuMat Technologies has won the first-ever U.S. Department of Energy’s National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition. This is the fifth business plan competition the super-hot start-up company has won since March.

The Northwestern team — which includes two Kellogg JD-MBA students — bested five other clean energy technology teams from universities across the country at the national competition on June 13 in Washington, D.C. All six teams had won regional business plan competitions to advance to the final. The title carries with it a $100,000 cash prize and $80,000 worth of in-kind services, including technical, design and legal assistance.

Part of the Obama administration’s Startup America Initiative, the competition promotes entrepreneurship in clean energy technologies. It is designed to find companies that will lay the groundwork for future economic opportunities that will ensure America remains competitive in the global clean energy race.

White House awards ceremony
Spun out of Northwestern’s research labs, NuMat impressed the judges — all from venture capital firms — with its commercialization idea, go-to market strategy, team plan, environmental benefits and potential impact on America’s clean energy economy. Daniel B. Poneman, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy, announced the good news at the awards ceremony at the White House.

NuMat designs high-performance materials that store gases and can be produced on a large scale for industry, and the startup has been on an undeniable roll since incorporating in February. Prior to this most recent win, NuMat won four business plan competitions (netting in excess of $1 million in cash and in-kind services). The team will be ringing the closing bell of the NASDAQ not once, but twice this summer. The company also has attracted national media attention from Fortune magazine, Crain’s Chicago Business and BusinessWeek.

“On behalf of the entire Northwestern community, I couldn’t be more proud of NuMat,” said Northwestern Vice President for Research Jay Walsh, who attended the event in Washington. “Multidisciplinary teams tackling fundamental societal needs are the lifeblood of a great research university, and I see great potential for Northwestern to continue to innovate at the cutting edge of energy and sustainability research. Several people in Washington asked me who will repeat for Northwestern next year — it’s great to have such high expectations.”

A diverse, cross-disciplinary team
Four Northwestern schools are represented in the company. Ben Hernandez (chief executive officer) and Tabrez Ebrahim (chief operating officer) are pursuing a JD-MBA, a joint degree from the Kellogg School of Management and the School of Law. Chris Wilmer (chief technology officer) is a chemical and biological engineering doctoral student at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Omar Farha (chief scientific officer) is a research associate professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

“We are honored to have highlighted Northwestern’s exciting research on the national stage,” Wilmer said. ”This would not have happened without the persistent and unwavering encouragement and support from the four Northwestern schools we represent. We’re also thankful for the technical and financial support we’ve received from key institutional and regional partners, including the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and the Clean Energy Trust.”

A patented-protected process
NuMat Technologies computationally designs and synthesizes high-performing metal-organic framework nanomaterials that enable the efficient and safe separation and storage of gases at low pressures and record-breaking densities. The process fundamentally changes the economics of countless gas storage applications, such as natural gas vehicles.

The patent-protected process was developed in the labs of Randall Q. Snurr, professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School, and Joseph T. Hupp, professor of chemistry in Weinberg.

The young company represents a well-established and growing trend of student entrepreneurship at Northwestern. The number of student startups has doubled in the past year, supported by the Northwestern University Incubator, student-run groups like InNUvation and the NUvention program. (NUvention offers entrepreneurship courses focused on medical innovation, energy, Web design and social innovation.)

“NuMat has set a new benchmark for success among student and faculty startups at the University,” said Michael Marasco, director of Northwestern’s Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “It’s exciting to see enthusiasm in fields like clean tech that haven’t recently held the same cache as Web/app companies. It adds rich diversity to our growing student and alumni portfolio and should encourage future teams to take that first step out of the lab or classroom.”

Further reading