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Solar energy research

The solar energy research facility at Valparaiso University is a rare solar furnace that allows undergraduates to do research.

Doug Ross, The Times

Creators of a new innovators competition at Valparaiso University hope it will grow in years to come.

The inaugural edition of Valpo Innovates, held at the university last weekend, was co-sponsored by the colleges of engineering and business. Eric Johnson, of the College of Engineering, said the organizers plan to make it an annual event.

The competition, organized by VU’s new entrepreneurial fraternity, Epsilon Nu Tau, was open to any student with any major, but each team could contain no more than two students from any one college to promote collaboration across disciplines.

“We think that better ideas bubble up if you have diversity of thought,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to limit the big ideas they come up with.”

A total of 25 students on six teams with majors in nursing, business, engineering, economics, computer science, Japanese and sociology competed for a possible $1,000 in prize money.

Johnson said the competition is modeled after a similar one at Texas A&M. After consulting with faculty and students, the group focused on the task of generating ideas to eliminate pollution in Northwest Indiana.

The winning idea was a bicycle taxi service, summoned with an app, created by juniors Rachel Silcox, Casey Main, Colleen Curry, Michele Pointdexter and Claire Ehr. The group won $1,000 for creating the idea, designed for downtown Valparaiso, that could easily be “translated” to other cities in the Region, Johnson said.

“It’s a popular thing in other big cities in other countries,” said Silcox, a mechanical engineering major from North Royalton, Ohio. “Bikes are huge in Amsterdam, and in Cambodia, it’s the main way to transport around the city. It would bring an exotic element to Valpo, and cool and hip ideas like this would make people want to stay here.”

Other ideas included a mobile soil testing lab for brownfields and an urban beautification project that linked community members in a cleanup event.

Horace Douglas, a Japanese and education double major, joined a team with friends and “friends of friends.”

“Everyone has a skill we bring to the table to come up with an out-of-the-box solution to the problem,” said Douglas, of Michigan City. “It’s good to branch out and try new skills in a new environment.”

Melanie Foytik, a marketing major from Des Plaines, Illinois, joined the competition because she thinks innovation is important.

“It’s a skill we need in the future,” said Foytik, a junior. “And pollution is something important to think about because it affects our generation and generations after us.”

Carl Lisek, executive director of South Shore Clean Cities, gave the keynote address at a kickoff dinner Friday evening. Lisek said a goal of his organization is to improve air quality in Northwest Indiana, and he challenged the students to find ways to achieve that goal.

“The best thing you can do is get out of your car, ride your bike, walk,” Lisek said. “We’d love for you to come up with plans and ideas for how to do that.”

Jim Brodzinski, College of Business dean, told the students they “set the benchmark” for the competition.

“We have a good mix of people around the room,” Brodzinski said. “We want this to be a campuswide activity, and hope we get even more involvement. Innovation is not something that is only in engineering and business.”