Logo: University of Southern California

Half Viterbi, Half Marshall, All Enthusiastic, X PRIZE Class Tackles Solar Large and Small

The assignment: find a challenge that can attract prize money - and solve social problems
Eric Mankin
May 04, 2010 —

“It was two credits,” said Jonathan Lasch, “taught as a pass-fail.” But the students, he said, worked as though their academic future were at stake.

Lasch is director of the Alfred E. Mann Institute and a research professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering. He was speaking about what he and his co-teacher, Gene Miller, director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies in the Marshall School, saw from the sixteen students who took Engineering 493, USC’s first X PRIZE class.

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Solar small: Ian Robinson (ME), Ann Chong (CHEE), Lorenzo Mangubat (CHEN, CHE), Alex Croll (ME), James Pratt (BMEC, MDDE), Lisa Ault (BAUD), James Liu (PELV, BAUD), Anna Harley-Trochimczyk (CHEN)

The students were trying to midwife new technology that could make life better using solar power. Specifically, the students' assignment was to find a problem that might serve as the next contest offered by the X PRIZE Foundation, the five-year-old organization that puts together 7-figure rewards for the solution of the right problems, rightly formulated.

“Our course objectives included learning to (i) sort technology ideas with consideration of business and societal dimensions, (ii) develop and defend recommendations, (iii) make credible presentations and reports, (iv) engage in critical thinking about complex issues, and (v) work effectively in teams," noted Miller. "The X PRIZE Challenge assignment provided the perfect medium for this learning to take place."

One of the two resulting proposals was for microsystems in Africa, the other for a megasystem in Los Angeles.

The class, with equal numbers of engineering and business students, was the offering of USC’s recently opened X PRIZE Laboratory, only the nation’s third. At the finale of Engineering 493, two eight-member teams, both “inter-religious” – half engineers, half-business students – offered detailed candidate problems, complete with explanations of the background technology, discussion of the importance of the problem and, by no means least, how to market the prize with sizzle to attract potential sources of prize money.

The process began, Lasch said, with a series of presentations by lecturers with expertise in all the aspects of solar, from technology to business prospects. One early source was P. Daniel Dapkus, director of USC’s Department of Energy-funded Energy Frontiers Research Center dedicated to solar power and light-emitting diode technology.

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Solar large: Evan Snyder (CHEB), Shreya Oswal (BUAD), Siddharth Ramakrishnan (BAUD), Kyle Obergfell (CHEB), Robert Rovai (AE), Scott Macklin (ASTE), Brett Derby (BUAD), Sarah Hansen (ACCT, BUAD)

As they assimilated the lecturer’s information the students formed small teams attacking nine ideas, which coalesced down to the two teams, who gave 10-minute presentations in the boardroom in Tutor Hall to an audience including X PRIZE Senior Director of Prize Development Eileen Bartholemew, alternative technology expert Winn Hong, plus a cross section of USC representatives from USC Stevens, the Viterbi School, the Provost's office and the Mann Institute.

The two presentations both revolved around the end of capturing and then using solar power, but were at polar opposites for scale.

The first focused on lighting up the nighttime lives of the citizens of the African nation of Malawi, almost 95 percent of whom live off any power grid. The challenge this group offered was a cheap and rugged (one of the requirements was ability to survive a 16-foot drop) solar collector, each kilogram of which could capture and store 24 hours of 15 watt power, enough to light a lantern; a device requiring only one hour to install, without special tools or skills.

The second presentation was mega: instead of thousands of micro-solar system, the challenge was a single gigantic solar system that would be able to power the Orange Line of the Los Angeles mass transit system, day and night.

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Learning from the students: Seated:  X PRIZE Senior Director of Prize Development Eileen Bartholomew, co-teacher Jon Lasch; Standing: alternative technology developer Winn Hong, co-teacher Gene Miller, Viterbi Associate Dean Cauligi Raghavendra, USC Stevens Director of Innovation Development Juan Felipe Vallejo, Mann Institute Head of Marketing Nathalie Gosset, Provost's Office Director of Corporate Research Advancement Dennis Atkinson, and Katherine Aschieris, Viterbi Office of Advancement

Entitled “Here Comes the Sun” it again focused on storage mechanisms for the abundant solar energy available in sunny Southern California, and emphasized the marketability of the notion in a place with ‘proximity to numerous universities and research labs and a high concentration of media – complete with PowerPoint slides showing future solar success stories.

The demonstrations concluded with dinner – but the X-Prize story is not over.

""The X PRIZE Foundation was impressed with the students' enthusiasm and the caliber of their work this semester on solar energy, which is an important area of focus for our Foundation," said Bartholomew.  "We look forward  to continuing to work with USC in making this class successful again next year."