Missoula’s Sunburst sensors wins XPRIZE for ocean device

MISSOULA, Montana – Sunburst Sensors LLC, a company resulting from University of Montana research, won $1.5 million in XPRIZE funding on July 20 for producing the best device to affordably, accurately and efficiently measure ocean chemistry.

The Missoula team won two $750,000 grand prizes – one for affordability and one for accuracy – during the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE competition. Two second-place awards for $250,000 also were awarded. The winners were announced during a lavish ceremony at the Harold Pratt mansion in New York City.

“It’s gratifying to have Sunburst Sensors’ employees recognized for their commitment and hard work,” said Mike DeGrandpre, the UM chemistry professor and oceanographer who launched Sunburst Sensors in 1999. “This XPRIZE competition is focused on ocean acidification, and it is rewarding to help raise awareness of this critical issue.”

The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE competition challenged teams of engineers, scientists and innovators worldwide to create a precise pH sensor that would measure ocean chemistry from its shallowest waters to deepest depths. The competition was designed to incentivize creation of these sensors for the study and monitoring of ocean acidification’s impact on marine ecosystems and ocean health, driving the industry forward by providing the data needed to take action and produce results.

XPRIZE competitions are designed to encourage innovative solutions for pressing issues from the world’s brightest minds. The first competition in 1996 resulted in the first private industry-produced reusable spacecraft. The 2010 competition produced the first 100-mile-per-gallon vehicle. For more information visit http://www. xprize. org/ .

During a two-year period, 24 teams around the world competed for the ocean health XPRIZE. The teams entered 27 devices in the competition. Fourteen teams advanced to coastal-water trials, and then five finalist teams completed deep-sea trials to depths of 3,000 meters. The other finalist teams were from Britain, Norway, Japan and the U.S.

Sunburst Sensors employs nine people. Company CEO James Beck said the winning device sucks in sea water, puts in a dye that changes color depending on the water’s pH – much like litmus paper – and then shines a light through the dye. The resulting color of the water reveals the acidity.

“It’s exciting to see a dedicated and hard-working faculty member from our University receive national recognition for the fruits of his research,” said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. “It also demonstrates how investments in university-based research can lead to companies that produce jobs and products that can have such a positive impact – like protecting the water in our oceans, lakes and rivers.”

For several years Sunburst Sensors was nurtured at MonTEC, a UM business incubator located in Missoula. The business has since graduated to its own location at 1226 W. Broadway. For more information about Sunburst, visit http://www. sunburstsensors. com/ .

University of Montana via EurekAlert, 23 July 2015. Press release.

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