Plywood covered entryways that weren't even designed to have doors. Streets once choked by bumper-to-bumper traffic and sidewalks stuffed with tourists now were deserted. The unnatural calm on the Las Vegas Strip came after Gov. Steve Sisolak's mid-March order to close casinos in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.
As panic set in for many, Greg and Ernest Lee, trustees of the Ted and Doris Lee Family Foundation, together with UNLV’s Lee Business School Troesh Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, saw a way to help spur recovery by introducing the $1 million Lee Prize, awarded to companies developing solutions that can come to market within a year and make it safer for guests to return to the hospitality and entertainment industries.
Greg Lee, CEO of Eureka Casino Resort, had a first-hand understanding of what was facing the hospitality industry.
“This was uncharted territory for everyone, but we knew we couldn’t sit back and wait for someone else to push for a solution. Even when the pandemic first began, we knew businesses would re-open again but the question we were wrestling with was how,” Lee said. “We saw this as an opportunity for the Lee Business School to bring the right people together to create the innovation necessary to make it safe for people to travel and play again.”
In April, the Lee Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship launched, ultimately receiving more than 250 applications from 32 states and nine countries.
Lee Prize winners:
- GoodWRX: An app-based work scheduling software that simplifies job sharing.
- Hotel Data Cloud: A global hotel content distribution database that gives hotels control over listings on any booking channel.
- Maidbot: Cleaning robots that also provide key data to management.
- Promethium: A virus-capturing HVAC system.
- Purlin: One-time-use recyclable bedsheets.
The selection committee was pleased by several submissions from Nevada-based companies and wanted to support their efforts to help in the recovery process. A sub-set of the Lee Prize – the Nevada Innovators Award – recognizes these teams with $25,000 each.
Nevada Innovators Award:
Finalist ideas ranged from one-time-use recyclable bedsheets to fleets of cleaning robots, virus-capturing HVAC systems, and an app-based work scheduling software that simplifies job sharing, and tools to oversee employee and customer flow to simplify social distancing. The finalists and winners were chosen by the Lee School Prize Committee, which included a mix of UNLV faculty and local business luminaries like Raiders owner Mark Davis, Golden Knights owner William P. Foley, and Bill Hornbuckle, acting CEO and president of MGM Resorts. Winners were announced at Demo Day, a virtual event held at the end of October.
Eight winners collected $975,000. The prize money was allocated based on need, potential impact and market-readiness. The balance of the money will be used to host another event to continue to help the creation of innovations to help solve a problem not yet addressed during the initial call-for-entries.
Promethium's promise of pure air
In 2018, UNLV engineering students Xavier Morgan-Lange, Devon Scheg, and UC Berkeley graduate Daniel Werth began developing a high-volume and scalable purification system for businesses.
“We have been working on something that quite literally addresses the issues we are facing because of the coronavirus,” said Morgan-Lange. “That has lit a fire under us to make this happen. The time is now to fulfill our mission of helping people.”
In the last two years, the Promethium team has expanded to include data analyst Guglielmo Panelli, who graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in the spring; electrical engineering consultant James Rowley, who is expected to graduate from the University of Arizona this fall and, geochemist and current UNLV student, Grace Martin. In 2019, Promethium received an I-Corp grant which allowed them to begin prototyping of their air filtration system. In May 2020, the team received a $100,000 investment that allowed the team of three to work on the project full-time.
Entrepreneurship was not the original plan for the Promethium trio, but as the idea became a reality so did the opportunity to start a business.
“I always had dreams about starting a business, but it we never had a solid idea, something that was truly marketable until now,” Werth said.
Promethium purifies the air combining HEPA filtration, UVC lamps, and cutting-edge photocatalysts — a type of semiconductor that helps disperse and neutralize airborne impurities, including viruses.
A standard HEPA filter can purify 400 rooms. Using the same amount of energy Promethium’s tech can purify 4,000. The air purifier is scalable with the ability to clean the air in spaces as small as an airplane to as large as a stadium or hotel.
In addition to air filtration systems, Promethium is looking to the future and creating similar technology for water filtration and hydrogen fuel generation. Promethium expects to have their current air filtration technology to market by spring.
Promethium will receive a total of $250,000 of the Lee Prize — $125,000 immediately, and the other half once they match funding through other investors. Demo Day allowed winners a platform to meet other investors and help them secure the money needed to accomplish their goals.
Though the winners of the Lee Prize addressed many problems created by the pandemic, the planning committee believes there may still be work to be done beyond the innovations the prize funded.
“Now that we have a platform through the Lee Prize, we hope to continue to push for innovations and solutions that will help our city and beyond get back to business,” said Leith Martin, executive director of UNLV’s Troesh Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “We are planning a future event to continue to leverage the work we have started here. We know the road to recovery will be long, but we have already seen that with bringing the right people together we can make the world safer.”
For more information about the Lee Prize, visit leeprize.com.