As the demand rapidly increases for electric vehicles and devices, so too does demand for rechargeable batteries, which often come from lithium-ion sources. The issue is that lithium-ion batteries contain toxic metals that can contaminate water supplies and ecosystems should they be disposed of improperly.
George Washington University engineering Ph.D. student Lingchen Kong and his faculty member, School of Engineering and Applied Science Professor Xitong Liu, have unearthed an environmentally conscious solution while meeting the future lithium demand.
Their company, Ellexco, offers a chemical-free, electricity-technology to convert geothermal brine to lithium hydroxide, which would lower the carbon footprint.
“We are confident that we can promote this technology and explore more lithium sources, and our goal is to make lithium extraction much more cost effective and much more environmentally friendly,” Kong said.
They received a big boost in that mission Thursday night. The pair took home two top honors totaling $20,000 at the 2023 New Venture Competition awards ceremony at Jack Morton Auditorium. Ellexco’s co-founders won the Business Goods and Services Track and the CirrusLabs Prize for Best Tech Venture, each $10,000 awards.
Four other startup groups won $17,500 for their ventures pitched at the GW Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship annual flagship event. Since it was first held in 2009, the NVC has turned into one of the nation’s top student entrepreneurship competitions.
In the 2023 competition, 417 participants spread across 161 teams participated, and judges awarded $357,200 in prizes, including $163,000 in cash to winners. Twelve finalists, who all received a minimum of $5,000, across four tracks gave an elevator pitch Thursday night after advancing past the first two rounds of competition. In total, participants represented nine of the 10 GW schools, making for a diverse range of innovative startup solutions noted by GW President Mark S. Wrighton.
“If this is an indication of the next generation of problem solvers, then we are all in good hands,” Wrighton said. “It is extraordinarily impressive to hear about the diverse set of new businesses.”
This year’s competition included several major changes reflecting OIE’s inclusionary mission to make entrepreneurship more accessible and relevant to students. In addition to the four tracks that had presentations Thursday—which included the Business Goods and Services, Social Innovation, Consumer Goods and Services and Healthcare and Life Sciences Tracks—a new track made its debut at the competition this year for students who had yet to gain experience with innovation and entrepreneurship program but were curious to learn. The Explorer Track, sponsored by GW alumnus Shaya Reiter, B.S. ’93, and his wife Mandy Reiter, offered smaller cash prizes and an automatic bye to round 2 of next year’s NVC to finalists. Eleven groups testing the entrepreneurial waters for the first time advanced to the final round.
There were also three rounds instead of four to simplify the application process and allow for more programming between rounds. All moves were made to appeal to a wider range of participants, some of whom may have been intimidated in the past. The inclusiveness factor was a big undertaking for Director of Student Entrepreneurship Kate Heath and her team, and they were pleased to see the outcomes in year one.
“It’s our mission to make innovation and entrepreneurship accessible and relevant to all students, regardless of which School they’re in or how mature their concepts are,” Heath said. “We’ve been very thoughtful in our approach to programming, ensuring a range of opportunities that serve the would-be innovator, the committed founder, and everyone in between. The changes we made to NVC were part of that approach, and so far the response has been extremely positive.”
Winners of the Business Goods and Services, Social Innovation, Consumer Goods and Services and Healthcare and Life Sciences Tracks all received $10,000 prizes. Second-place winners received $7,500, while third place earned $5,000.
GW Law student Rafael Caballero, along with teammate Santiago Perez, won the Social Innovation Track venture, as well as the Quinn Prize for Social Impact for $7,500. Their product, MiCorte, is a text messaging service that automatically checks immigration court hearing information from the Executive Office of Immigration to notify immigrants in real-time about changes to hearing, date, time location or presiding judge. This is a response to millions of backlogged cases, leading to hundreds of thousands immigrants missing their court hearings that could ultimately lead to dismissal orders.
Caballero, an immigrant from Venezuela, explained that the current system usually notifies immigrants by mail but noted that some immigrants change addresses often. His service would eliminate this administrative procedure and give immigrants up-to-the-minute information on court cases and a history of previous records and changes.
“It is going to completely revolutionize the way immigration court cases work,” Caballero said.
GW medical student Iris Brammer pitched a reusable dough that delivers consistent cooling without restricting movement that can be sculpted for any area of the body. She said her product, called CryoDough, could be a household essential for first aid to rapidly ice accidental burns without interrupting cooking or other busy activities.
Her idea won her top prize in the Health and Sciences Track and a $7,500 award for Best Prototype.
“I’m very passionate about medical care and innovation, and my priority was always taking care of patients and making sure that these types of common inconveniences are actually addressed,” Brammer said. “Simply put, CryoDough should truly be the next home essential. I’m very passionate about medical practice and innovation.”
GW Law student Sonia Schmidt, as well as business partner Devan Geib, won the Consumer Goods and Services Track and received an additional $7,500 prize for Best Storytelling. Immorta is a social media platform where users can upload, store and share multiple types of media that serves as a collective memory book so legacies can be celebrated during life and preserved beyond death.
Schmidt said Immorta would be more than a scrapbook or photo album, as it would be an easy way to preserve memories such as a cake recipe, and each family member could have their own page.
“We believe every story is worth telling, and every person is worth remembering,” Schmidt said. “We wanted to make sure that every single person's story could be told.”
GW Business senior Yijia Gu won the coveted Viewer’s Choice Award, a $10,000 prize voted on by the public. She also won second place in the Social Venture Track. Her venture, called YIMU, is a nonprofit supporting Chinese and Asian sexual minority women through producing documentary series, broadcasts and films to raise public awareness of the Chinese and Asian LGBTQ communities to eliminate stereotypes, improve mental health and trigger social change. An initial documentary is already in production.
Olivia Ouimet and Nitya Bonda, both Milken Institute School of Public Health students, won the $1,500 prize for top Explorer Track. Their company, GlobeER, is a technology to mitigate the concern of finding healthcare services in a foreign country for travelers who experience a health crisis.