Undergraduate students take home sustainability award

July 5, 2019 by Perry King

In front of a packed room of their peers, 10 groups of students recently had three minutes each to pitch a new sustainability-focused product or startup with the potential to make a signficant impact. 

In the end, three were named winners of the first-ever University of Toronto Sustainability Innovation Prize, a $5,000 award created to recognize, reward and accelerate U of T’s most innovative sustainability ideas. The winners included: SoluSave, a startup that seeks to recycle solvents used in undergraduate laboratories; STP Sports, which aims to reduce the environmental footprint of professional sporting events; and Circular Toys, a company that asks families, schools and individuals to subscribe to eco-friendly toy packages.

The competition, held on June 12 at U of T’s ONRamp co-working space for startups, is an initiative of the President’s Advisory Committee on the Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability, which laid out a plan last year to incorporate sustainable ideas and practices into U of T’s operations.

"The committee was tasked with finding ways to advance U of T’s contribution to meet the challenges of climate change and sustainability – with a particular focus on research and innovation, on teaching and on operations,” said John Robinson, the committee’s chair and the president’s adviser on environment, climate change and sustainability, in remarks before the competition began.

Robinson, who is also a professor in the department of geography and planning with cross appointments at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the School of the Environment and the John H. Daniels Faculty of Landscape, Architecture, and Design, added that the committee wants to make sustainability innovation a key component of the university’s identity, to achieve international leadership in this field and promote more sustainability activities on campus.

“This prize competition is an important part of that overall strategy,” he said. “It’s aimed at supporting, engaging and rewarding U of T students – you – who have sustainability ideas and are interested in finding a way of bringing them to the world.”

The finalists were judged by Kenneth Corts, the vice-dean of faculty and research at the Rotman School of Management, Tyler Hamilton, a senior manager of partnerships at MaRS Cleantech, Ron Saporta, U of T’s chief operations officer of facilities and services and Joerg Wittenbrinck, a senior policy advisor at the Ontario Ministry of Energy.

Laboratory recyling startup SoluSave, led by third-year undergraduates John Russell and Leanna Smid, took part in their first-ever pitch competition and were nervous throughout their presentation.

They were even more surprised to hear that they won.

“We saw the competition – a lot of graduate and PhD students – so it was very intense but it was really rewarding to get this,” said Russell. After developing the idea several months ago, the duo “wanted to get a feel” for how pitch competitions work, Russell said.

SoluSave seeks to build a waste disposal device that could be marketed to undergraduate labs as a cost-effective alternative to conventional waste disposal. The recycler device would be optimized for easy use and scaled for use for different kinds of washing solvents.

With the prize money, the team plans to develop a prototype using acetone this summer. “We want to run our test trials in the labs at U of T and broaden our range from here to see what universities are interested in sustainable chemistry,” Russell said.

“Chemistry is being done all over the place," he added, "and one thing that some universities don’t take note of is the sustainable aspect of the work.

“That’s something that definitely we should move towards.”

Read more about the University of Toronto Sustainability Innovation Prize.