Lee Prize rewards innovative solutions to pandemic problems

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The team at Promethium has created a virus-capturing HVAC system.
The team at Promethium has created a virus-capturing HVAC system.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but few things help scale an invention faster than a sizable cash prize.

With Nevada's tourism sector in free fall this past spring, the Lee Business School at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and the Ted and Doris Lee Family Foundation looked to accelerate recovery with the May launch of the Lee School Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The competition's prize pot totaled $1 million, set to be split among multiple winners able to solve pandemic-related issues plaguing the hospitality and travel industries. 

Out of more than 250 submissions, five Lee Prize winners were selected this November by the competition's prize committee, which included hospitality, tourism and entertainment heavyweights like chef Wolfgang Puck, MGM Resorts CEO Bill Hornbuckle and celebrity DJ Steve Aoki.

"The quality of each team was an important part of the criteria," said Leith Martin, a Lee Prize committee member and the executive director of UNLV's Troesh Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. "But because we're focused on addressing pandemic-related challenges, the big question was, can the product be ready for market in the next 12 to 18 months?"

One of the competition's winners, Maidbot, has had a head start in terms of market presence. The company, which launched in 2015 and specializes in robotic housekeeping technology, had already forged partnerships with several major hotel groups, including Hersha Hospitality and Sage Hospitality Group.

Maidbot's flagship product is a vacuum robot, which Maidbot founder and CEO Micah Green claims can vacuum a 325-square-foot guestroom in just six to 10 minutes. 

"When we started doing customer research, we asked owners why they weren't using Roombas," said Green. "And a major issue was durability. Batteries would melt and motors would burn out in days or weeks. And secondly, Roombas were taking up to an hour to clean one room."

For Las Vegas hotel and casino operators, Maidbot's ability to cover ground quickly is particularly appealing, according to UNLV's Martin. 

"Because the resorts here in Vegas are so big and, frankly, have so much carpet, Maidbot really resonated with our group," Martin explained. "Also, one of the biggest problems today is having enough people and resources to clean. If the amount of time a person needs for vacuuming completely disappears, that time can be reallocated to another area."

Maidbot’s robot can vacuum a 325-square-foot guestroom in six to 10 minutes.
Maidbot’s robot can vacuum a 325-square-foot guestroom in six to 10 minutes.

Reallocation of labor is also a focus for fellow Lee Prize winner Goodwrx, an app-based work scheduling software that aims to simplify job sharing.

According to Martin, Goodwrx provides hospitality venues access to what he described as "a pool of pre-qualified gig workers." 

"If you have a bar employee call in and say, 'Sorry, I've tested positive for Covid and I'm out for the next 14 days,' how does that affect your bar?" asked Martin. "A company can post [that gig] on Goodwrx, and it offers them the ability to manage [scheduling] in a flexible environment."

Like Goodwrx, Lee Prize winner Hotel Data Cloud also aims to help hospitality players better manage the unpredictable. The platform is billed as a "central hub," allowing a hotel to instantly update information across all its digital distribution channels, from OTAs to its own website.

"A governor could make a mandate today that would affect bookings tomorrow," explained Martin. "You need to get that info to your customer as quickly as possible."

Meanwhile, with concerns surrounding airborne transmission of Covid-19 top of mind, the committee selected Promethium -- which has created what it calls a "virus-capturing HVAC system" -- as a winner.

Promethium's solution promises to purify air using UV light and proprietary photocatalytic technology. The company's patent-pending system is currently being tested at Indiana's Purdue University, with Promethium COO and co-founder Daniel Werth projecting that the product will be ready to launch by April. 

Notably, Promethium claims its system will be able to handle large volumes of air far more efficiently and at less cost than competitors.

"Our most recent prototype can clean up to 40,000 square feet of casino floor with just 432 watts," said Werth. "And that 40,000 square feet would cost just $800 -- or two cents per square foot -- to clean per year."

Purlin, a startup offering one-time-use recyclable bed sheets, also nabbed Lee Prize honors by striking a similar balance between sanitization and efficiency.

Produced using man-made fibers, Purlin's sheets are positioned as a more hygienic alternative to traditional linens. The sheets are intended to be used by a single guest, and once the guest checks out, the sheets are taken off the bed, shredded and manufactured into new sheets that are delivered back to the hotel.

According to Purlin's website, it takes less than a gallon of water to produce one queen-size Purlin sheet. In contrast, Purlin estimates that it takes 2,800 gallons of water to produce one queen-size cotton sheet and that a 100-room hotel will use roughly 400,000 gallons of water annually to launder their cotton-based sheets.

"It's compelling from an environmental standpoint," said Martin. "And to answer the million-dollar question, it does feel like a normal sheet."

The amount of money awarded to each Lee Prize winner varied according to several factors, including how much was likely needed to scale up each company's concept. Maidbot received $50,000; Goodwrx $150,000; Hotel Data Cloud $200,000; and Promethium and Purlin were each awarded $250,000.

Along with the five Lee Prize winners, the competition's committee awarded $25,000 each to three Nevada-based companies as part of an additional Nevada Innovators Award. 

In total, the committee awarded $975,000.

"We reserved $25,000, because there were a couple of things that we didn't see solutions for," said Martin, citing industry demand for better management tools for larger-scale events and venues as well as an efficient airplane sanitization system. 

"We're hoping to host a 'hackathon' to get those things solved," he added. "We want to stay focused on creating operational efficiencies that offer customers peace of mind." 

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