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Physics students take home Sontag Entrepreneurship Award, and $50,000


block_n-6731390-8929473A group of physics students has taken home the Sontag Entrepreneurship Award, and the $50,000 prize money that comes with it, in the competition’s inaugural year at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The Mining Environmental Technology and Services (METS) team plans to develop, produce and market optical instruments to detect potentially harmful airborne particulates in mining workplaces, improving safety in the mining industry. In accepting the award, team leader Ben Sumlin explained that they were doing atmospheric research, using weather balloons to quantify distribution of pollution in the atmosphere, when they realized the same technology could also be put to use in the mines, to measure diesel exhaust and improve safety in the mines.

In a state where the mining industry has deep roots, helping to earn the former territory its statehood in 1864, and at a University known worldwide for its mining education and research, it seemed befitting that the Sontag Entrepreneurship Award went to a team that has produced a prototype to improve safety in the mining industry.

Thirty-five student teams submitted business plans to the competition, and six were named finalists a few weeks ago – BOX Feeds, Entropy Fuel Systems, Envirohaven, GrabiTech, METS and Modphalt. On Wednesday, the students gathered at the University with family, friends, mentors and faculty for the announcement of the winner. College of Business Dean Greg Mosier praised students, judges and faculty involved in the competition, and turned the program over to Dave Croasdell, associate professor of information systems at the University who helped organize the competition. Croasdell called up to the podium the six finalists, who each said a few words about their projects and thanked the Sontags for sponsoring the competition.

Alumnus Rick Sontag and his wife, Susan, funded the competition last September, with a $1 million gift to the University. Sontag earned his master’s degree in physics at the University in 1966, where he said he had an epiphany, realizing that he was “more interested in the administration and management of science than actually doing the sciences.” He went on to earn his MBA at Harvard and become a very successful entrepreneur.

The Sontags joined the awards presentation via Skype. From his office in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Rick made it clear that even he didn’t know who had won the competition, holding up a plain white, sealed envelope with the word “WINNER” handwritten in black marker. Before announcing the winner, he said that he had read all the proposals.

“Somehow, everyone managed, in a very short time frame, to submit very readable, interesting proposals,” he said. “You all need to keep your dreams alive, even those who don’t win today. I have fallen on my face many times – don’t worry about, just keep trying.”

After Susan opened the enveloped, Rick read the winner — Mining Environmental Technology and Services, and mused, “How about that. There’s somebody else besides me, in physics, launching themselves into a successful career path.”

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Photo Cutline: The Mining Environmental Technology and Services (METS) student team was presented the inaugural Sontag Entrepreneurship Award and $50,000 May 9 at the University of Nevada, Reno. Left to right: College of Business Dean Greg Mosier, Ben Sumlin, University President Marc Johnson, Heather Zunino, Bryan Rainwater and David Karr. Not pictured: Pat Arnott, team advisor and physics professor in the College of Science. Photo courtesy of Theresa Danna-Douglas, University of Nevada, Reno.

Nevada’s land-grant university founded in 1874, the University of Nevada, Reno has an enrollment of 18,000 students and is ranked in the top tier of the nation’s best universities. Part of the Nevada System of Higher Education, the University has the system’s largest research program and is home to the state’s medical school. With outreach and education programs in all Nevada counties and with one of the nation’s largest study-abroad consortiums, the University extends across the state and around the world. For more information, visit www.unr.edu.

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