U of A Biofuel Startup Wins $20,000 at National Competition

ProPika members Angel Treat, left, and Nhiem Cao won $20,000 for their pitch at the 2024 Energy Tech University Prize in Austin, Texas.
JLeitner Photo

ProPika members Angel Treat, left, and Nhiem Cao won $20,000 for their pitch at the 2024 Energy Tech University Prize in Austin, Texas.

A U of A startup focused on creating alternative fuels was one of three national winners at a pitch competition organized by the U.S. Department of Energy. 

ProPika, which uses its patented technology to process cellulose so fuel producers can transform billions of tons of agricultural waste into sustainable alternative fuels and chemicals, finished second at the Energy Tech University Prize and earned $20,000. 

The team includes ​Nhiem Cao, Vanessa Noemi Gonzalez and Angel Treat. 

Overseen by the DOE's Office of Technology Transfer, the Energy Tech competition challenges students to identify a promising energy technology, assess its market potential and create a comprehensive business plan for commercialization.  

This year's competition began with a cohort of 225 teams from 117 schools. ProPika was among 28 who competed in the finals on April 15 in Austin, Texas. 

ProPika was formed in the U of A Office of Entrepreneurship's New Venture Development courses, an intensive, incubator-like sequence that helps students develop the knowledge and skills to bring new innovations to society — whether by creating their own company, working for a startup, taking a greater role in an established company or founding a non-profit.

The team further honed their idea in OEI's Master of Science in Product Innovation program, which develops the skills to create, launch and manage products in the context of a startup venture or innovative industry environment.  

ProPika won more than $57,000 in prize money in April after competing in several national competitions, which Cao said validates the technology's value proposition and business plan. 

"We were able to get people to believe it's possible," he said. "That sense of validation is important in any start-up, especially when doubt starts to creep in. The technical challenges are still daunting, but we are pressing onward." 

ProPika is working to scale their technology and raise venture capital, with Cao noting that their winnings allow the team to "bootstrap a while longer." 

"We are fortunate to have a supportive community. While raising and closing a funding round is never easy, we do have investors who are anxiously watching our progress," Cao said.  

"We'll continue to do the work. One way or another we will make a positive impact." 

About the U of A Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation: The Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation creates and curates innovation and entrepreneurship experiences for students across all disciplines. Through the Brewer Family Entrepreneurship Hub, McMillon Innovation Studio, Startup Village, and Greenhouse at the Bentonville Collaborative, OEI provides free workshops and programs — including social and corporate innovation design teams, venture internships, competitions, and startup coaching. A unit of the Sam M. Walton College of Business and Division of Economic Development, OEI also offers on-demand support for students who will be innovators within existing organizations and entrepreneurs who start something new.  

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