Transcend Madison winner tests the water with new technology

Transcend Madison 2017, UW’s student-run innovation competition, happens today and Thursday at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery. And the stakes are high: The winner of last year’s competition is about to graduate and work full-time running the company he started as an undergraduate.

Zach LaVallee, a mechanical engineering student, co-founded Emonix along with Neil Klingensmith, a UW Ph.D. computer engineering student, in 2014.

Using sensors to moderate salt applied by water softeners, Emonix’s technology cuts the amount of salt dispensed by nearly a quarter. Reducing reliance on salt not only cuts costs, but curbs the adverse effect of salt on the environment. The first iteration of Emonix’s technology saved Chadbourne, one of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s residence halls, approximately $8,000 in just one year.

For the environment, and for facility managers’ wallets, there’s clearly a need for Emonix’s product.

It’s no wonder Emonix placed first in UW-Madison’s first-ever student-led innovation competition, Transcend Madison 2016, last March.

Already, 30 teams and nearly 100 students are registered for Transcend Madison 2017.

Placing first ahead of 26 teams in last year’s competition, Emonix took home $7,500 and immediate enrollment into Madworks seed accelerator. The accelerator, an intensive, 10-week program, provided them with the resources, mentorship and $5,000 in capital to take their idea to the next level.

Beyond Madworks, Neil and Zach put their direct winnings from the competition toward the cost to attend and set up a booth at a water treatment trade show held in Tennessee, where the two made some sales and met distributors.

To students competing in Transcend Madison 2017, LaVallee offered the following advice: “I would say, focus on the problem of things instead of trying to make something that isn’t there,” LaVallee said.

In Emonix’s case, the two were already working on the solution in a lab on campus, and it was from attacking this existing problem that they realized they might have a product viable for market.

Transcend Madison offered many types of rewards, LaVallee said.

“What I really liked was someone could win best pitch or best idea … and not win [the top prizes,]” LaVallee said.

LaVallee also said that UW is incredibly more rich in resources than he initially realized, and urged students to take advantage of what the campus has to offer, emphasizing that it’s not necessary to compete to access campus resources.

“There’s a lot of resources that we were trying to find within or just online that we didn’t realize we could just call someone,” LaVallee said. “There were a lot of things that I didn’t realize. UW has an incredible network of professors. If you need something, anyone will sit down with you for five minutes.”

“Five years from now, we’d love to be twenty times better than we are, but on this path we’re trying to make sure we grow with responsibility as opposed to wildly, he said.

Transcend Engineering, a UW-Madison student organization dedicated to driving student innovation, hosted the competition.

— Cadence Bambenek