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Contest inspires PSU inventors

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sam Weiss explains the Portland Shower invention to Calvin Rasmussen during a PDX Tech Meet Up at Mercy Corps. The shower can recycle water, reducing water and heating bills.There are three stages of taking a shower — rinse, lather, relax — the Portland Shower team has discovered.

“We did a seven-day shower diary challenge with quite a few people,” says Sarah Shannon, 28, a member of the team who earned an MBA from Portland State University in June.

Those diaries revealed that people spent 40 percent of their shower time merely relaxing. The findings are being put to use by Shannon and two fellow PSU alums — Sam Weiss and David Dang — who designed a shower that can recycle and reuse up to 90 percent of the water used.

Their innovation is one of seven projects competing in the semifinals of PSU’s second-annual Portland Cleantech Challenge. 

The contest challenges teams of students, faculty and staff to come up with an innovation that “solves a significant environmental problem, or one they can find and make a compelling case for,” says Quinn Read, the Cleantech Challenge project manager.  

Of the 20 teams that applied in May, 15 were chosen to move forward, and seven made the cut in June after pitching their ideas to a panel of cleantech judges.

Cleantech is a term that has come to encompass technologies geared to a cleaner environment: recycling, renewable energy, information technology, green transportation, electric motors, green chemistry and lighting.

Many of the teams have students and faculty working together, and many cross disciplines. 

The seven semifinalists will now move on to the final contest, pitching their products next month at Oregon BEST FEST, an annual gathering of researchers, entrepreneurs, industry leaders and others who meet to share their best solutions for environmental challenges. BEST stands for Built Environment and Sustainable Technologies. 

The sixth-annual BEST FEST is set for Sept. 15-16 at the Oregon Convention Center.

Thinking beyond the lab

The Portland Shower team and the six other PSU teams are working over the summer to create a full prototype of their products, which they’ll show to the judges in hopes of winning up to $25,000 in prize money. The winners also will get bragging rights and a chance to attract investors who could help take their product to market. 

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - People at a PDX Tech Meet up learn how the Portland Shower might work. To help the competitors along, the challenge paired them with mentors in their field and awarded them $2,500 in development grants.  

The challenge started two years ago with a grant from Wells Fargo, under PSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship. 

The contest is a way to promote the entrepreneurial mindset across campus, beyond just the business school. “Getting faculty and students to think beyond the lab — how do you get your innovation into the world and make a difference,” Read says.

“Commercialization is one way to do that. This contest is one way to move things forward, and has been quite fantastic.”

After this year, Read says, the goal is to make the challenge a statewide competition, based at PSU, but open to others across Oregon. 

Keeping water from going down the drain

With the popularity of low-flow toilets, rain barrels and hand-sensor sinks, one might think water-reducing showers also would be common. 

That’s not the case — at least not in the U.S. market, Shannon and her Portland Shower team found. 

So they decided to create a water-saving shower of their own, and thought the name “Portland Shower” had a nice ring to it. 

Even though Portland has a plentiful water supply, “we definitely think that the energy-efficient crowd in Portland will be receptive,” Shannon says. “Portland is a great starting point because we’re known for unconventional ideas.”

Another target audience is residents and contractors in drought-ridden places like California, the Southwest and other spots in the U.S. and abroad. 

“It was partly inspired by events going on overseas,” where there are quotas on how much water can be used, says Weiss, 23, who just received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. 

“We have a very real application for anyone who wants to save water,” adds Dang, 22, who just earned his undergraduate engineering degree. 

This isn’t the first time Shannon, Weiss and Dang have worked together — the trio met through PSU’s Launch in 9, a program that fosters student-led start-up businesses. 

They formed the Portland Shower company, and are now on their fourth iteration.

The shower lets people decide when to start and end the water recycling process. At first the water sprays like normal from the faucet, collecting in a divot they built in the basin at the bottom. 

With the push of a button, the drain closes and the water begins its recycling process, running through a heater and filtration system. 

A proprietary valve switches from using the municipal water supply to the shower’s own supply. 

From their research, the team figures an average shower lasts 10 to 12 minutes and uses 2 to 2.5 gallons of water per minute. 

By that measure, the Portland Shower could save each household up to 30,000 gallons of water each year. 

The team just needs to finish a few final pieces. They’re working to improve their design and make its filtration and water treatment system as energy-efficient as possible. 

“We have proof of concept that it works,” says Shannon, standing near the shower, an 8-foot-tall prototype built with 2x4s, a fiberglass basin, white linoleum wall and a tangle of cords, outlets and pumps in the back. 

The final product will be more elegant, and the team hopes to keep refining it with more prototype testing in actual homes this fall. 

However, herein lies the challenge.

“We don’t want to overengineer it, because we don’t want to pull too much energy,” Shannon says. “We have a top-of-the-line pump, but it doesn’t need to be that nice. We’ll bring it down a notch.”