Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors Company, offered his opinion on clean energy and innovation to participants of the Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge Showcase before the final results of the entrepreneurship competition were revealed last Friday at the Ross School of Business.
Sixteen teams comprised of students from universities and colleges from around the state of Michigan, participated in the six-month competition, eight of which hailed from the University of Michigan. The goal of each team was to develop an idea to incorporate clean energy into successful businesses.
Lutz told students at the event that in order for an idea to be considered innovative, it must be driven by a purpose to create something unique and practical. He said if an idea does not address questions asked by society, it should not be considered a true innovation.
“Innovation for the purpose of innovation is not innovation at all,” Lutz said. “Finding a different way to do the same thing is not true innovation.”
He pointed toward Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad as breakthrough technologies that offer functionality and appeal.
“(Apple) did something that (has) never been done before, and did it brilliantly,” Lutz added.
Leading into a discussion of clean energy, Lutz ensured the audience that he is a strong supporter of environmentally friendly power sources, despite previous misinterpretations of his views of his criticism of global warming.
“For the industry, the nation, the economy, the future of energy demand and supply on this earth, we do need some clean energy solutions,” Lutz said. “Clean energy must, at some point, for long-term success, be the most efficient long-term solution.”
In his introduction of Lutz, Engineering Prof. Thomas Zurbuchen said Lutz is a remarkable figure in the automotive industry and a “true innovator.”
“He’s always honest,” Zurbuchen said. “He doesn’t copy others … (he) always has impeccable style. His perspective is not always the most popular, but it’s always absolutely interesting and exciting to me.”
During his address, Lutz said the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid car, is the ultimate example of a combination of innovation and clean energy, adding that the automobile industry is on its way to becoming an entirely electric-driven business in the near future.
“Electrification of the transportation sector is real, it’s coming,” Lutz said. “It is perhaps … going to be more gradual than many people think.”
Lutz added that he is optimistic about the clean-energy future of the United States, but noted that due to recent fossil fuel discoveries in North America, gasoline-powered vehicles will not be completely replaced in the near future.
Lutz said a future of clean energy depends on innovative minds like those of students at the University.
“That future … looks a lot brighter to me because of the likes of folks like you and the work being done in this program and others like it.”
Engineering freshman Aaron Podell said he agreed with the topics that Lutz addressed, particularly the importance in redirecting focus to sustainability and environmentally friendly initiatives.
“I think he was very accurate in what he said — if you’re going to do something, it has to be for a purpose, for a reason,” Podell said. “I think he showed that it’s important that we demonstrate a need to move toward cleaner energy, but we have to recognize that we have years of technology based on gas products and we can’t just abandon those.”
Before the winners were announced, the teams each gave a three-minute presentation to the audience of their clean energy prototype.
Wayne State University student Yating Hu, a team member of Piezo PowerTech, which clinched first place and $50,000 in the showcase, said the clean energy industry has a lot of competition among innovators because it’s a relatively new market. However, Hu said she believes her company has a fair chance in the business.
“We’ll definitely be the solution in the future … for this kind of work to push the new technology on clean energy is very important for us to get started,” Hu said.
Hu said the Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge Prize will help her team further advance its existing prototype by capturing the attention of potential investors and other companies.
“Eventually, we are looking forward to making this commercialized as soon as possible and have the jobs created in Michigan as soon as possible,” Hu said.
Hu added that the next step for her team is to represent the state of Michigan in the national competition in Chicago.
In an interview after the event, Lutz said he was impressed with Piezo PowerTech’s electric tire gauge, which proposes to replace battery-powered technology with a device that would generate energy from vibrations, rather than a source that could otherwise produce waste.
“It makes all the sense in the world to me,” Lutz said. “If it can store the necessary amount of energy I think that could really work … that would be a tremendous cost saving (technique) and would add real value.”
Though the ideas presented in this competition are at the beginning stages of development and require further progress, Lutz said he believes the designs have a lot of potential. Specifically, he noted that small, cleaner engines made by PicoSpray, the second place team from the University of Michigan, have the potential to significantly reduce motor emissions.
“That again would be a huge boom in terms of saving energy and cleaning up the air,” Lutz said.