University of Arizona startup incubator launches in Biosphere 2, attracting sustainable tech companies to Pinal County | Jeff Kronenfeld


The exterior of Biosphere 2.(Tech Park Arizona)

By Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Oracle, Arizona) The University of Arizona Center for Innovation at Biosphere 2, a startup incubator focused on sustainable technology and renewable energy, celebrated its grand opening on April 12.

The first four participating companies are Red Sea Farms, SolarSpace, Solar Rivers and Over the Sun.

According to Biosphere 2 Associate Director John Adams, they will conduct tests and demonstrations at Biosphere 2 while learning how to grow their business.

The UACI is a network of startup incubators spread across southern Arizona. It has directly helped 160 companies and influenced thousands of entrepreneurs.

Tech Park Arizona operates the UACI, which works to attract and retain technology companies in the region. UACI locations partner with companies that fit the distinct assets of their region.

“What’s unique about Biosphere 2 is that a lot of what we’re doing is related to understanding how Earth’s systems are responding to global climate change and how we can understand the impacts that will have, but we also do a lot when it comes to food, energy, water and how that nexus comes together,” Adams explained.

(L to R) John Adams, David Vili, Kai Staats, U of A President Robert Robbins and Tech Parks Arizona Associate Vice President Carol Stewart(Tech Park Arizona)

Build a better solar trap

According to SolarSpace founder and CEO David Vili, the company was born out of a quest to power the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Anthony in Florence.

Now, SolarSpace combines technologies developed at the U of A and NASA in novel ways to increase the efficiency of solar power generation.

The company uses curved mirrors to focus sunlight onto solar cells and convert it into electricity. However, the innovation does not end there.

“What’s really cool about it is that it actually takes the heat and converts the heat into sound waves, and then those sound waves are converted into electricity,” Adams explained. “[Vili] thinks it could have an extremely efficient thing, an efficiency that we’ve never seen in a conventional photovoltaic system.”

SolarSpace plans to use its new collectors to power off-grid charging stations for electric vehicles, although many other applications are also possible.

Over the next three to five years, the company plans to build 130 E-stations across Arizona and California, including one at Biosphere 2.

Looking up a flight of stairs in Biosphere 2.(Jeff Kronenfeld)

Greener greenhouses

Founded in 2018 in Saudi Arabia, Red Sea Farms aims to make harsh environments thrive by radically improving greenhouse efficiency.

An example of the company’s innovative new technologies is a polymer for greenhouse windows that only lets in light that helps plants grow, reducing energy and water consumption.

The same substance can also help greenhouse windows generate electricity, according to Ryan Lefers, co-founder and CEO of Red Sea Farms.

Existing structures can also benefit from the adaptable polymer.

Plans to build demonstration models in Biosphere 2 are underway, as are discussions about adding the substance to the facility’s library windows.

“They’re actually going to set it up and show people how you’d retrofit it, how you’d put it into a new one, how the technology works, and then also provide a space for people to come in and work so you can have staff development ‘ Adams explained.

Simulate life on Mars

The following company is set up a little closer to home. Over the Sun is led by Kai Staats, a director of research at Biosphere 2.

Staats leads the team that developed a program called A Scalable, Interactive Model of an Off-World Community (SIMOC).

Adams likens SIMOC to a video game, albeit one with informational value. The program is used for educational purposes in classrooms across the country and at Biosphere 2.

Adams recalled a group of college students from Japan and Arizona who learned about life and death in space through SIMOC.

“They actually had to go through and use SIMOC to create a simulated habitat,” Adams said. “It was at least five if not six trials they had to go through before they had the right conditions that they wouldn’t kill their astronauts. So it’s a great hands-on learning experience.”

According to Adams, Staats is in discussions with National Geographic to adapt SIMOC to model terrestrial ecosystems. The program is available free online through the National Geographic website.

Saving H20 by converting canals into power plants

Tectonicus is developing technologies to design, install and operate solar panels over irrigation canals as part of the Solar River project.

“If you could cover [canals] With photovoltaic cells, you can now generate the electricity needed to pump the water,” Adams explained. “Water evaporation is minimized or reduced, but the evaporated water actually hits the underside of the panel and creates a cooling effect. Cooling the panels means they are more efficient.”

The company estimates that covering all of Arizona’s canals would generate 17.2 terawatt hours of electricity annually while saving 70,743 acres of water.

Construction of a full-scale prototype at Biosphere 2 is underway. Once completed, researchers will use the prototype to study evaporation, algal growth and solar panel efficiency.

I’m looking forward to

At least one other company is already in talks to join the UACI at Biosphere 2.

As an Oracle resident, Adams is optimistic about how the program can educate the public about exciting new sustainable technologies and boost the local economy.

“I really hope that as these companies continue to grow, they get a bigger foothold here at Biosphere 2 and that we begin to see opportunities for the people who live here in southern Pinal County in the three-community area.” said Adams.

Because these four companies could have a significant impact on Pinal County’s future, a series of articles will follow in the coming weeks and months that will delve deeper into each company.


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