How the Covid pandemic inspired this year's Lee Prize winners

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Maidbot's "Rosie" cleans a hotel room floor at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
Maidbot's "Rosie" cleans a hotel room floor at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
Paul Szydelko
Paul Szydelko

Innovation, both incremental and revolutionary, is essential for the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, and efforts such as the $1 million Lee Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship encourage dreamers to focus on what's needed most urgently and accelerate their paths to market.

One-time-use, recyclable bed sheets; a durable cleaning robot; and a virus-capturing HVAC system were among the winners of the competition spearheaded by the Troesh Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"I didn't know what to expect, because it was a competition that was specifically focused on travel, hospitality, entertainment, and it was also focused on projects that were specifically building things that would help those industries recover from the pandemic," said Leith Martin, executive director of the Troesh Center.

The pandemic has certainly accelerated the drive for more automation seen in the entries, Martin said. "Never let a good crisis go to waste, I think is the term," Martin said. "It has allowed companies to begin to operate considerably more efficiently. For example, you consolidated customer service groups that you knew should have been consolidated three years ago, but just didn't do it because they didn't have time."

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, congratulated the Lee Prize winners. "Through your entrepreneurship and innovation, we'll be able to return safely and be doing the things we love, and we'll be revitalizing this $2.2 trillion travel industry."

While Lee Prize winners received $975,00, another $25,000 balance was set aside to encourage other innovations for issues not addressed during the competition's initial call for entries.

Among the advances Martin said he expected:

• The ability to put a venue for a show or a sporting event into a computer modeler, which would automatically manage ticketing to maximize capacity while following local regulations on social distancing and capacity.

• Software that would work like contact-tracing apps, with which restaurants can track guests, when and where they sit, and their contact information -- a requirement some states may start to implement. "You can imagine that's a pretty daunting task for a restaurant, which already has to be the face mask police," Martin said. "Now they have to be the police in regards to who comes and goes, and customers obviously don't like the fact that that's being tracked."

• A program to help restaurants better manage multiple food-delivery services, such as GrubHub, Doordash and Uber Eats. "That's become a pretty daunting task for small- to medium-sized restaurants to manage all those," Martin said. "It would be nice if there was a way so that all of those could be managed in a single portal, and then it would automatically interface with your point-of-sale system so you wouldn't have to manually do all of those things."

Other ideas didn't make the Lee Prize cut because they were not advanced along to bring to market within the year or did not have enough long-term business value if the Covid-19 problem dissipated, Martin said.

The innovation and entrepreneurship for which Las Vegas has long been known, as well as human nature to want to experience things together, will be keys to its rebound amid the pandemic, Martin said.

"That's borne itself over the evolution that Vegas has taken on over the last 30 or 40 years. It reinvents itself. That ability will be the key factor in allowing it to return," said Martin, describing how the Strip's old emphasis on gaming and cheap food bloomed into a more well-rounded destination of nightclubs and day clubs, world-class restaurants and entertainment.

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