University of Arizona startup incubator launches at Biosphere 2, attracting sustainable tech companies to Pinal County

Jeff Kronenfeld

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The exterior of Biosphere 2.(Tech Parks 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 tech and renewable energy, held its grand opening on April 12.

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

They will conduct tests and demonstrations at Biosphere 2 while learning how to grow their businesses, according to Biosphere 2 Deputy Director John Adams.

The UACI is a network of startup incubators spread throughout Southern Arizona. It has served 160 companies directly while impacting thousands of entrepreneurs.

Tech Park Arizona runs the UACI, which works to attract and retain technology companies to the area. UACI locations work with companies that match their region’s particular assets.

“For Biosphere 2, what’s unique to us is much of what we do is related to understanding how Earth's systems respond to global climate change, and how we can understand what those impacts will be, but also, we do a lot when it comes to food, energy, water, and how that nexus comes together,” Adams explained.

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(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 Parks Arizona)

Building a better solar trap

According to SolarSpace's founder and CEO, David Vili, the company developed out of an effort to provide power to St. Anthony's Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence.

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

The company uses curved mirrors to concentrate sunlight on solar cells, converting it to electricity. However, the innovation doesn't end there.

“What's really cool about it is 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 he could have an extremely efficient thing, an efficiency that we've never seen in a traditional photovoltaic system.”

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

Over the next three to five years, it intends to construct 130 E-Stations across Arizona and California, including one at Biosphere 2.

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Looking up a staircase inside Biosphere 2.(Jeff Kronenfeld)

Greener greenhouses

Founded in Saudi Arabia in 2018, Red Sea Farms aims to make harsh environments bloom by radically improving the efficiency of greenhouses.

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

This same substance can also enable greenhouse windows to generate power, according to Red Sea Farms co-founder and CEO Ryan Lefers.

Existing structures can also benefit from the adaptable polymer.

Plans to construct demonstration models at Biosphere 2 are underway, as are discussions of adding the substance to the windows of the facility's library.

“They're going to actually set up and show people this is how you would retrofit it, this is how you incorporate it into to a new one, this is how the technology works, and then also provide a space where people can actually come and work, so you can have workforce development,” Adams explained.

Simulating Life on Mars

The following company originates somewhat closer to home. Over the Sun is run by Kai Staats, a research director at Biosphere 2.

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

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

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

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

Staats is in conversation with National Geographic to adapt SIMOC to model Earth ecosystems, according to Adams. The program is available for free online through National Geographic's website.

Saving H20 by turning canals into power plants

Tectonicus with the Solar River project is developing technology to design, install, and operate solar panels over irrigation canals.

“If you could cover [canals] with photovoltaic cells, now you can generate the electricity that's necessary to pump the water potentially,” Adams explained. “The water evaporation is minimized or reduced, but that water which does evaporate actually hits up on the underside of the panel and creates a cooling effect. Cooling the panels means that they're going to be more efficient.”

The company estimates covering all of Arizona's canals would generate 17.2 terawatt-hours of power annually while saving 70,743 acre-feet of water.

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

Looking Forward

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

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

“I'm really hoping as these companies continue to grow, they have more and more of a footprint here at Biosphere 2, and that we begin to see opportunities for the folks living in the tri-community area here in southern Pinal County,” Adams said.

Since these four companies could have a significant impact on the future of Pinal County, a series of articles looking at each more closely will follow in the coming weeks and months.

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

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