Sustainable business challenge offers cash prize, inventor support

The Northwest Innovation Resource Center is putting aspiring entrepreneurs’ ideas to the test when it comes to sustainable products or business practices.

And at stake: $25,000 in cash prizes and business support.

The Bellingham-based nonprofit’s Northwest Washington Sustainability Challenge will assemble teams from regional colleges to pitch proposals to a judging panel made up of investors and experts in the fields of sustainability and technology.

Registration for the challenge closes April 1. More information is available online at

Diane Kamionka, executive director of the NWIRC, said the challenge is designed to aid the organization’s goal to help inventors and entrepreneurs at local colleges and universities access the support they need to develop products and businesses. Doing so could help capture innovative talent that would hopefully provide future economic boons to Whatcom County and surrounding areas, she said.

The challenge’s focus on sustainability evolved out of a growing trend of sustainable education and practices on college campuses, Kamionka said.

“In this generation of students, sustainability isn’t a separate idea or a separate course, it’s something that gets integrated into their way of thinking,” she said. “It’s just normal for them.”

The challenge is open to students, faculty, alumni and staff at participating colleges, which include: Bellingham Technical College, Edmonds Community College, Everett Community College, Northwest Indian College, Skagit Valley College, Washington Engineering Institute, Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College.

Student-led teams must have at least three members enrolled in one of the participating schools. The contest also features an “affiliate” category, open to teams with at least one staff, faculty or alumni member from the participating colleges, said Andrea Gabriel, project manager for the challenge.

Team proposals will be reviewed by NWIRC staff and a competition advisory board. Six finalists will present their proposals to judges on May 16. The judges include representatives from the Bellingham Angels investors group, the Washington Clean Tech Alliance and Element 8, formerly known as the Northwest Energy Angels.

Gabriel said contest entries do not necessarily have to be products; they could also be business processes that meet the guidelines of the challenge.

She added that while a cash prize is a good enticement to attract participants, she thinks the process of connecting students and entrepreneurs with the NWIRC could provide even greater benefits.

“Although there will be people chosen as winners, it’s possible that the push to get this done will also create other businesses and endeavors,” Gabriel said.

The challenge is among the first NWIRC initiatives expanding the nonprofit’s reach beyond Whatcom County.

The organization, which is headquartered in Bellingham’s Barkley Village, offers programs designed to help local entrepreneurs connect with support resources to bring their products or business ideas to life.

One of its programs, the Build It lecture series, provides design workshops, guest speakers and interactive events to support inventors and entrepreneurs, with a major focus on getting products from the design board to the marketplace.

Lara Merriam-Smith, program manager for the NWIRC, said she’s working to expand the Build It program this year and possibly offer the events to entrepreneurs in Skagit County.

Merriam-Smith said the NWIRC has also introduced a new series of “brown bag” lunches, called Inventor Insights, which will bring experts on inventing and entrepreneurship to discuss a variety of topics, including intellectual property and patents, market research and the process of crafting product pitches.

Evan Marczynski, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories