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A University of Utah team hoping to commercialize a new way to produce quantum dots, semiconducting nanocrystals that could greatly enhance the efficiency of electronics displays and solar panels, has won the People's Choice Award at the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition.

About 300 teams from across the country participated in the inaugural competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The U. team, called Navillum, and five others advanced to the finals after winning their regional competitions. The national competition concluded last week with an awards ceremony at the White House.

U. chemists Jacqueline Siy-Ronquillo and husband Nikko Ronquillo developed the technology, which could lower the costs of producing quantum dots, and started a firm called Navillum Nanotechnologies to establish the process in the marketplace. It can produce quantum dots at far lower temperatures and with greater control than conventional methods. They enlisted the help of three MBA students — Ryan Tucker, Chris Lewis and Ameya Chaudhari —to create the business plan, which won the regional clean-energy contest.

The regional victory yielded $100,000 for Navillum, which also has secured $144,000 in additional funding.

"The competition was very educational for us," Nikko Ronquillo said. "We came in as a very early startup company, and we expected to be up against very good competition. This experience was invaluable as a future entrepreneur."

The Utah team won the national award by capturing the most votes during several weeks of online voting. The overall winner was NuMat, representing Northwestern University, for its new technology for storing natural gas. Other regional winners were from Stanford, MIT, Central Florida and Columbia.

"It was great to go up against such stiff competition and big-name schools," Tucker said. "Investors are waiting for companies to do proof of concept. It gives us milestones to prepare us for when we go for funding."

Brian Maffly