Israeli group takes second in Berkeley science contest

A team of young MBA students from Israel took second place in an international competition to develop innovative technologies with potential benefits for society and financial investors.

Competing against 20 other entries from 11 countries, the Israeli project, initiated by a professor and four graduate students from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), dealt with extracting and marketing “green” biodiesel fuel from microalgae.

The three-day competition at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, titled the Intel-Berkeley Techno-logy Entrepreneurship Challenge, ended Nov. 15.

The Israeli group, which entered its project under the nascent company name of Negev Renewable Green Fuels (NRG Fuels), was awarded an oversized $10,000 check at the closing ceremony.

First place and $25,000 went to a German project on the early detection of breast cancer through intra-operative 3D imaging. Brazil came in third with a navigation system for visually impaired persons.

The second-place showing elated Avi Avidan, 28, who presented the biodiesel project to the judges. “We were given only 15 minutes to explain our project and then were grilled for 10 minutes,” he said.

The judges were 20 Bay Area venture capitalists, whose focus was as much on the commercial potential of the presentations, as on their technical feasibility and social value.

Avidan ended the evening with 10 business cards from potential investors in his pocket and serious interest from a Brazilian and a Chinese-American company. He spent the following two days working the phone to his new contacts.

Joining him in Berkeley were three fellow honor students in the MBA program — Roee Arbel, Noga Bar-El and Daniel Eisen — who jointly developed the business plan for the project.

The scientific leader was Shoshana Arad, a veteran authority on algae growth and genetics. She heads the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev at BGU, as well as the Ruppin Academic Center in Emek Hefer, and was unable to make the trip.

Avidan, who served as an artillery officer in the Israeli army for four years, holds degrees in biotechnical engineering and business administration and works closely with Arad.

Unicellular microalgae beats all other plants and vegetables in its high oil content and CO2 absorption, requires little space for cultivation and can be converted to biodiesel by a straightforward chemical process. Another advantage is that microalgae is now being grown in Israel in a closed system of transparent, seawater-filled tubes, rather than open ponds, lowering the chances for contamination.

Avidan and his colleagues are looking for initial investments for a pilot program, followed by a scaled-up system in about two years.

The Berkeley competition was this year’s final round for the two top winners of previous rounds of regional elimination contests around the world.

The biodiesel project was almost eliminated when it placed third in the Israel competition. One of the two top winners couldn’t make it to the follow-up European competition in Bucharest, so Avidan’s team went instead.

There the BGU group walked away with the first prize, automatically qualifying for the finals at Berkeley.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent