USC chosen to host third X Prize lab

A group of USC students could help set the course for future innovations in solar energy.

The X Prize Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to technological advancements through competition and prizes, selected USC as the site of a lab to develop a competition for the field of solar energy. Other notable X Prizes have been created in the fields of space travel and genomics, but this will be the first that focuses on energy.

The students working in the X Prize Lab are charged with developing the next X Prize challenge. The goal is to create a “breakthrough challenge” that, if overcome, will produce a monumental development in the field of solar energy.

“What we’re challenging students to do is figure out, what is an X Prize-worthy solar challenge. Does it mean solar energy at a more economic level? Solar energy as a substitute for other energy technologies? The idea is to give the students enough technical, business, societal and economic information [to make that decision],” said Jonathan Lasch, a professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering.

The lab is part of a class, the Dean’s Seminar in Entrepreneurship (ENGR 493X). The class is led by Lasch, who is also the director of the Alfred E. Mann Institute; and Gene Miller, director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Marshall School of Business. The class is open to business students and engineering students.

Currently, the class is examining different problems around solar energy: technological challenges and possibilities, business efforts, policy implications and research and development. Each class session features a guest speaker who addresses one of those issues.

In the second half of the semester, student teams will develop recommendations for a solar energy challenge and will give presentations to a panel comprised of members from the faculty and the X Prize Foundation.

Students in the class said they are intrigued by the possibility of making a lasting contribution to the field of solar energy.

“It’s very interesting — not like any experience I’ve had before,” said Lorenzo Mangubat, a junior majoring in chemical engineering. “It’s something that I feel has real-world applications, so I’m all for it.”

Lasch said the program is a good opportunity for students to learn what it is like to work in a team setting and to focus on important issues.

“Even if it doesn’t lead to the next X Prize challenge, it still is a good medium to learn to take info from multiple dimensions to look at complex scenarios,” Lasch said. “This is the sort of [function] that senior management in large corporations perform.”

Miller also noted the value of learning how to see the big picture from a variety of different perspectives.

“[It places you] at a higher level of understanding policy impact: ‘What’s going to change the world we’re living in? What are the stumbling blocks that have to be overcome?’” Miller said.

Though the final reports are still to come, students said they have already come to the consensus that one of the primary challenges facing solar energy innovations is efficiency.

“Cost is the major issue — something that is a cost-efficient system,” said Sarah Hansen, senior majoring in accounting and a member of the class.

Mangubat agreed.

“One of the complications with solar energy is that there are so many competing technologies and so many challenges unique to each,” he said. “Which challenge is the most significant — which challenge is the one which, if resolved, would really make an impact in solar? Probably efficiency — I think solar tech has yet to reach a certain cost-effectiveness that will really make it competitive [with other forms of energy production].”

Lasch said, regardless of whether the class’ proposal is used, he hopes students retain the techniques of critical analysis. Mangubat, however, has loftier goals.

“I would consider [the class] a success if my peers and I are able to formulate an X Prize statement that developers of solar technology will feel is attainable and worth their effort,” he said.

The USC lab is the third in the country, along with labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Washington.