Salem high school students take home $20,000 in cash prizes at PSU Cleantech Challenge finals

Team members (from left) Luis Castro, Lorenzo Alvarez, Saul Martinez, Tyler Hull and Cristofer Flores.

As a result of their innovative plastic recycling invention, a team of four McKay High School students from Salem, Ore. and one from Portland State University won a total of $20,000 in prizes as it topped the six other finalists in the fifth annual PSU Cleantech Challenge, presented by Wells Fargo. This was the first year a high school team won the challenge.

The winning team is made up of McKay High School students Luis Castro, Saul Martinez, Cristofer Flores and Lorenzo Alvarez. They were joined by Tyler Hull, an electrical engineering student at PSU.

At the final competition held in downtown Portland on Sept. 14, the RECYCL3D team was awarded the $10,000 grand prize for its work to develop a toolkit that collects plastic from school lunchrooms, breaks it down and extrudes it into filaments to be used by 3D printers. The students donate 50 cents to schools for every pound of plastic recycled to help generate revenue for programs.

A total of seven teams from McKay, PSU and Oregon State University built prototypes of their environmentally friendly inventions in just three short months to compete for a total of $50,000 in funding and prizes.

“The nature of clean tech is to innovate and evolve, and that’s what we’re doing with this competition,” said Juan Barraza, PSU Cleantech Challenge program manager. “There’s something to be said about bringing your entire community together and focus on one thing. In this case it’s innovation and entrepreneurship around clean tech.”

The PSU Cleantech Challenge started in Portland. The organizers realized inventors and entrepreneurs are hard at work throughout Oregon and later expanded the competition statewide.

“It was so exciting to serve as a judge again this year,” said Senior Vice President Tawnie Nelson of Wells Fargo, whose birthday was on the same day as the judging. “I could not have spent my birthday a better way. It was dynamite. I was so inspired by the high school students. Congratulations to all the winners.”

The high school team won the $5,000 People’s Choice Award, determined by votes from 2017 Oregon BEST FEST attendees. In addition, the McKay team was one of two to receive a $2,500 prize for having the best pitch, which it delivered to more than 30 clean tech entrepreneurs and professionals who served as judges for the competition.

The second-place prize of $5,000 went to NexGarden, which also won a best pitch award of $2,500. NexGarden is a self-sustaining, high-efficiency aeroponic vegetable growing module led by PSU sustainability student Hugh Neri and University of Oregon alumna Skyler Pearson.

In addition, a $2,500 prize was awarded to Aquarian Provisions for having the best prototype.

The RECYCL3D and NexGarden teams also received an additional $2,500 each to develop the next iteration of their prototype. They will represent Portland State University at the first statewide prototype competition InventOR finals on Oct. 10 at OMSI, sponsored by the Lemelson Foundation and Business Oregon.

Students from the McKay team are part of the Oregon MESA program, which is run by Portland State. MESA is a pre-college ademic program that equips underrepresented students with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), invention and 21st-century skills.

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