Dr. Alan Mantooth, ARA Fellow and professor of electrical engineering at the University of Arkansas, is a man of many talents – and endeavors. As head of an award-winning, electronic research program at UA, Dr. Mantooth has founded three startup companies in Arkansas, contributing an estimated $4 billion to the state’s economy.
As president of the Power Electric Society (PELS), Dr. Mantooth is leading another high-stakes project: one that could bring reliable power to a billion energy-impoverished people worldwide.
IEEE Empower a Billion Lives and its $1,000,000 prize is meant to spur interdisciplinary innovation in the global community, and to develop and demonstrate solutions to provide power to impoverished regions of the world. We caught up with Dr. Mantooth to learn more about this intriguing initiative.
Q: “Empowering A Billions Lives” is a worldwide competition. Is there enough knowledge and talent in the state for an Arkansan-based team to compete for this $1M prize?
[AM] Absolutely. In fact, the organizers at the PELS level specifically asked if we would have a team. To be clear though, the purse is $1M. There are 5 regional competitions and a global grand prize winner. The prize amounts are being finalized within the $1M purse. For example, maybe each region wins $150k, so that is $750k and the grand prize is another $250k on top, so that team wins $400k. We are still finalizing that particular detail.
Q: Arkansas didn’t see statewide availability of electricity until as late as the 1950s. As users of plentiful, consistent energy, what are we taking for granted?
[AM] First, a federal government that was committed to electrifying its population and setting up businesses to operate the grid – rural electric coops. These are non-profits that transformed rural America. Currently, they are leading the charge to bring broadband to rural America because others won’t and they own the poles to string it on!
Second, our way of life and standard of living is directly proportional to the availability of relatively inexpensive, reliable electric power. Take that away and see how life changes dramatically in a heartbeat.
Q: What alerted you to the plight of energy impoverished regions?
[AM] That’s a hard question to answer. I guess I’ve been aware of it for a very long time, and I was even aware that some attempts were being made at various times to address the issue. What brought this to the point of taking action was when several in our professional Society made the commitment to utilize the things we do well as a Society and have them brought to bear on the problem. Examples include: technical expertise in the power electronics and energy field, running innovation competitions, vetting ideas through peer review, entrepreneurship related to our technologies, and organizing events to disseminate knowledge.
Q: Are alternative energy sources, like wind and solar, the future to providing adequate power to energy impoverished regions? Or do we have to think beyond those boxes?
[AM] You have to think beyond those boxes. I believe that renewables is a big part of the solution, yes. But, again, we have to think beyond technology. We can probably mate technologies to regions of the world, but it has to be cost effective and the local population needs to be able to install and use it and make a business venture out of it for it to sustain. See my answers referring to the rural electric coops. They run themselves now, but they needed a kickstart.
Q: Is a $1M prize enough incentive to provide a solution to this problem, or is the challenge enough motivation?
[AM] It’s not enough. We intend to run the competition every 2 years for several rounds. We feel that this first round may not produce solutions that adequately scale to hundreds of millions of people and more. We have to be open to that possibility anyway. So, we feel that by consistently continuing, we will get there. Further, we are attempting to define “earn outs” whereby winners that go forth with their efforts to scale, can receive additional awards as they scale.
Q: How common are these contests within the research and innovation community?
[AM] We see business plan competitions that are technology-based all the time. That is actually the closest to what this is. But, PELS has run the International Future Energy Challenge (IFEC) since 2000 and it has led to three successful startup companies that have had a significant influence on the field of renewable energy. IFEC is more of a student-based technical challenge type of competition and is not business oriented. And yet, it still led to these ventures. This competition is focused on business models and technology combined to achieve scalable solutions.
Another example is the Google Little Box Challenge that PELS co-sponsored with Google in 2014.
Q: You and your team at the University of Arkansas are responsible for a number of electric innovations. Any chance that you lead a team to the $1M prize?
[AM] Well, you never know! We’d want to partner with a company perhaps in a teaming situation, but there is a distinct possibility that we might take this on.
Dr. Alan Mantooth was named an Arkansas Research Alliance Fellow in 2015. He and his University of Arkansas research team have developed technologies designed to withstand extreme temperatures, such as those found in deep well drilling, vehicular engine compartments and even the International Space Station.