The University of Texas at Dallas

Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science


Students Shine at Startup Competition

Students Shine at Startup Competition

 Jason Tran, Konan Mirza and Yosias Kassaye make their presentation for Alta Air

From left: Jason Tran, Konan Mirza and Yosias Kassaye make their presentation for Alta Air, which placed third at at the finals of the 2017 Big Idea Competition.

Two student teams recently advanced to regional competitions to pitch their startup ideas to industry professionals.

On the UT Dallas campus, ten teams – each composed of students from a range of disciplines – competed in the annual Social Entrepreneurship Pitch Competition, also known as the Hult Prize.

To advance to regionals for the Hult Prize, the teams stood in front of a panel of judges and quickly pitched their ideas, which were aimed to “harness the power of energy to transform the lives of 10 million people by 2025.”

Taking first prize on campus, and setting their sights on the ultimate $1 million-dollar grand prize, was Alta Air, a team belonging to electrical engineering junior Yosias Kassaye, and juniors Jason Tran and Konan Mirza.

“About 200,000 people a year die annually from air toxins and the government continues to use outdated technology to monitor air pollution,”Mirza said. “This monitoring equipment is stationary and lacks the fundamental capability of pinpointing the source of the pollution and finding the exact amount and types.”

Alta Air knew this issue had to be addressed and drew up a plan.

The team decided they would pursue a modular unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) detection system that could travel around a city and collect data about pollution and then create a map of the information.

Over the course of the next few months, the team, led by Mirza, created a comprehensive 70-page design notebook that outlined trajectory, air speed, costs, components and everything needed to realize the plan.

“We took this to the state competition and won first place,” Mirza said. “Then we moved on to the nationals and won the Best Innovation Award where we pitched to NASA executives, EPA officials, professors, and lawyers. After our initial part of this journey we knew we had something great in our hands and were eager to pursue it as a business.”

Alta Air also placed third at UT Dallas’ 2017 Big Idea Competition.

Through support from the UTDesign Startup Challenge and the Blackstone Launchpad, Alta Air prepared for the Hult Prize.

The UTDesign Startup Challenge leverages experiential learning through the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science’s UTDesign senior capstone course to help bring high-potential technology startups to life. The Blackstone LaunchPad is a campus-based global entrepreneurship program designed to support and mentor students, staff, and alumni – regardless of major, experience or discipline.

“The UTDesign Startup Challenge is great way for students to test out their ideas in an environment that cultivates innovation and invites risk,” said Rod Wetterskog, assistant dean of corporate relations in the Jonsson School.

Succeeding at the UT Dallas Hult Prize competition next to Alta Air was the company SolarCare, led by physics junior Benny Rubanov.

SolarCare is dedicated to helping impoverished communities in Sub-saharan Africa benefit from clean, affordable electricity in the form of solar energy.

“Our idea was to partner with rural hospitals and install small, solar farms near locations, supplying them with reliable electricity to power appliances such as refrigerators and equipment,” Rubanov said. “Excess energy produced is stored in portable batteries that are then delivered to nearby communities to provide the benefits of solar energy to those that can’t afford their own systems.”

While neither team advanced at the regional competition, both said they learned valuable lessons and were provided certain opportunities to network with industry professionals that may prove beneficial in the long run.

And, Alta Air says they will continue to work on their startup by securing other means of funding and acquire a patent for their drones.

“Texas is the optimal state to start and operate this business,” Mirza added. “Dallas and Houston are ranked among the top 10 most polluted cities in America and have inaccurate methods to analyze the pollution. Helping Texas is a personal goal of mine as I have lived here most of my life and a vast majority of my friends and family are here. I believe I can truly make an impact by accurately finding the source of the pollution and decreasing it through Alta Air.”