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FusionGRow earns $15K at Wege Prize

March 7, 2014
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Wege Award
Jacob Czarniecki, Aziza Ahmadi, Philip Han, Yulia Conley and Eric Choike, from left, earned the first-place prize. Courtesy KCAD

Undergraduate students from academic institutions in West Michigan tackled a wicked problem and were awarded cash prizes at the final showcase for the first yearly Wege Prize.

Finalists competing for $30,000 in total cash prizes at the 2014 Wege Prize presented solutions to a problem last week at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts. FusionGRow was awarded $15,000 for its first-place finish, while the team Wicked Solutions Inc. received $10,000 for second place and an additional $5,000 for winning the public vote.

FusionGRow’s solution brings sustainability into homes using hydroponic technology to grow fresh produce. The design uses glazed ceramic trays, an embossed pattern to mimic naturally oxygenated water, recessed LED lighting and a shape to allow unique growing options. The team members were Aziza Ahmadi, Jacob Czarniecki and Yulia Conley from Grand Valley State University, and Eric Choike and Philip Han from Kendall College of Art and Design. 

Colin Webster, education program manager at the U.K.-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation and a judge at the event, said one thing he liked about FusionGRow was that the team intends to pursue its idea further.

“That’s exciting, you know, to have something real and positive to come out of this,” said Webster.

The Wege Prize is a competition that encourages students to work collaboratively across disciplinary fields and academic institutions, incorporating collaborative design and thinking to solve the problem of creating a circular economy. The economic model refers to a cycle where resources are reused without detracting desirability or loss of revenue.

There is a pressing need to change the current economic system since some of the world’s largest firms are wondering how they can move forward with their current business model, according to Webster.

“I think that we’ve had a lot of success by doing some deep economic analysis of the circular economy and presenting a new economic model to businesses,” said Webster. “And we’ve also had a lot of success working with the universities and schools and opening up people’s minds, saying it doesn’t have to be the way it has been for the last 200 years.”

After teams submitted their proposals to solve the current economic system problem, the top solutions were made available online at wegeprize.org. The public was allowed to vote for each project before the finalists presented their results to a panel of judges, which included, in addition to Webster: Gretchen Hooker, Biomimicry 3.8 Institute, a global nonprofit promoting natural solutions transferred into sustainable human design; Michael Werner, Haworth Inc., global office furniture manufacturer; Nathan Shedroff, California College of the Arts; and Ellen Satterlee, Wege Foundation, an organization promoting enhancement of lives and sustainability of the natural environment.

Webster said the projects were judged based on viability, coherent presentation and incorporating various angles into the solution.

“We were looking for a team that clearly worked well together,” said Webster. “The winning team had to come up with something that checked boxes in the social side and the economic side and the environmental side.”

Wicked Solutions Inc. picked up second place, in addition to the public vote, with its solution of using a plant-based polymer, polylactic acid, or PLA, for a renewable plastic bag system. Consumers pay a deposit per PLA plastic bag, return the bag for a refund, and then the returned bags are reprocessed into new bags. The team was comprised of two Hope College students, Evelyn Ritter and Gabriel Robinson, two Kendall students, Matthew Johnson and Justin Burton, and Aquinas College student Kristina Raiz.

Kendall College of Art and Design partnered with the Wege Foundation to host the event as a three-year grant program. The launch of the 2015 Wege Prize was announced at the awards ceremony. Teams will tackle the same wicked problem of a circular economy model. The 2015 competition is open to students across the United States.

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