The University of Arizona Tech Park and its business incubator will help scientists and entrepreneurs explore new solar power technologies as part of a U.S. Department of Energy competition to advance American-made solar innovations.
The Tech Park and its tech-focused Arizona Center for Innovation were among 70 sites nationwide picked as “connectors” to provide resources and support to competitors in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s American-Made Solar Prize contest.
The only other Arizona connector site is re-Engineered, an interdisciplinary engineering project formed by an assistant professor and grad students at Arizona State University.
The competition, which is open to individuals as well as companies with innovative solar technologies, offers a total of $3 million in cash prizes across three 90-day competitive rounds. Prize competitors will have until early October to apply through connector sites like the UA Tech Park.
Connectors are charged with helping competitors move their ideas forward with resources including mentoring and business development, digital design and prototyping, access to research facilities for testing, and help with private investors and other industry partners.
The UA Tech Park on South Rita Road has all those resources available, including The Solar Zone, which is believed to be the nation’s biggest utility-scale solar technology demonstration site, said Bruce Wright, UA associate vice president for Tech Parks Arizona.
The Solar Zone so far consists of nine utility-scale projects demonstrating various photovoltaic technologies on about 225 acres, and it recently opened an additional 10 acres to small-scale test projects that could be used by American-Made Solar Prize competitors.
The Arizona Center for Innovation provides business-development programs, mentorships and office support for tech startups.
The tech park itself has ample lab space and test facilities and is now retrofitting its Building 9052 to create an applied-engineering center, including a “maker space” for use by applied engineering solar-prize competitors for prototyping, Wright said.
On the business side, the companies also can use Global Advantage, the tech park’s market and business-development services platform, Wright noted.
“We’re putting an array of services on the table,” he said.
The tech park won’t be in line for any upfront funding for its work as a connector, though it may qualify for some incremental funding for things like informational sessions the UA plans to hold next week, and some park and AZCI services carry modest fees.
“Our motivation first is to advance this new technology as a university and play a role in getting it out into the marketplace, and, secondly, we see this as an opportunity to attract these businesses from around the country into the tech park, to test their technology and possibly to establish their business in Southern Arizona,” he said.
Wright said tech-park officials already have talked with 10 or 12 local companies interested in the solar prize competition, declining to name them, and competitors nationwide could tap into the park’s resources.
Staff heading the effort at the tech park are Anita Bell, director of AZCI; Global Advantage coordinator Naomi Weiner; and business-development associate Edward James.
“One of the reasons we are so excited about this is it is like a catalyst for Tucson, to put us on the map as a solar area,” Bell said.
The American-Made Solar Prize process is split into three parts, dubbed “ready, set, go.”
After competitors apply for the first phase, within 90 days judges will select 20 to 40 applicants who will equally split $1 million in prize money of up to $50,000 each.
After the first-round winners participate in a tech demonstration day in February, in the second phase five to 10 of the first-round winners will be picked to split another $1 million in prize money, and judges will pick the final two winners in line for prizes of $500,000 each.
Competitors must apply for the first round by Oct. 5.