'Cool' ideas receive funding through Proto Labs contest

Dallas engineer Arun Gupta had a great idea. Create an efficient solar panel for hotels and factories that could pull double duty: making electricity and heating the building's water at the same time.

He named the company Skyven Technologies and got to work perfecting computer models. The only problem? Money. Skyven needed to build a full-scale prototype to show investors and take the business to the next level.

Enter Proto Labs Inc.'s Cool Idea Award contest, which on Thursday announced it would grant Skyven and several yet-to-be selected winners up to $250,000 this year in free manufacturing services. Judges have been selected and are ready to receive submissions. Gupta applied last year and is the first winner announced this year.

This is the fifth year that Maple Plain-based Proto Labs has sponsored the contest, which is open to entrepreneurs in the United States and Europe. The idea is to reward innovators with free manufacturing help so their revolutionary but budding ideas, models or parts can quickly leap into actual production.

Proto Labs is a custom manufacturer with about $200 million in annual revenue. It uses computerized milling, injection-molding or 3-D printing technology to quickly make customer prototypes, products and parts.

As part of his $35,000 Cool Idea award, Gupta will use all three of Proto Labs' manufacturing processes to make the plastic and metal parts for his unique solar panel, which will be the size of a conference table when assembled.

"Having this award and having them build our product for us has been huge in making sure everything is working right and that we can show it to people," Gupta said. "Otherwise, the most we can get are computer simulations, which are not very convincing to most people."

Contest program manager Sarah Ekenberg said Proto Labs has donated $750,000 in manufacturing work to 21 start-ups with big ideas but few resources. It often manufactures a winning contestant's product housings, clips, parts or the critical attachments that connect hardware to software.

Armed with an actual physical product allows winners to showcase their innovation, raise funds on Kickstarter and fully commercialize their idea, Ekenberg said. In return for its help, Proto Labs wins loyalty, future customers and moves one step closer to becoming the $1 billion company it wants to be in 10 years. It also wins a permanent association with pretty far out technologies.

Past "Cool" contest winners include a self-propelled ocean-exploring robot; a personal robot for the home; the rugged and nimble Whirlwind wheelchair; and Solo Shot, which is a personal-tracking device invented by a surfer who wanted to make instructive selfie videos while he was out hitting the waves.

Last year, Proto Labs helped AMPY, which designed a wearable device that converts body movement into stored cellphone power. In 2013, the Flip Out Tantrum screwdriver won a Cool Idea award that helped it manufacture a tool for impossibly tight spaces and angles.

This year's Cool Idea contest should draw more applicants than ever. "The word is definitely getting out about the award," said Ekenberg. "We are nearly doubling every year. In 2014, we had nearly 500 applicants."

This year, Proto Labs will showcase past winners at six innovation conferences including South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas; MakerCon in San Francisco; Industrial Designers Society of America Conference in Seattle; and the Designers of Things Expo in San Francisco.

Skyven's Gupta said his reaction to the ward was one of "shock and deep gratitude."

"Now, we expect to have all the parts shipped back to us and to complete the manufacturing award by February," he said in a phone interview. Skyven solar panels will be ready for a full market launch next year.

That tickles Proto Labs founder and contest judge Larry Lukis.

"Skyven has leveraged several existing solar technologies ... to create a completely new model that builds on each technology's strengths," Lukis said. "The resulting product is one that brings higher levels of solar efficiencies to a market that is always looking to reduce its carbon footprint."