Winning team posing and smiling in front of projector
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A big idea for better batteries

  • Innovation and Research
  • Graduate and professional students
  • Swanson School of Engineering

Becca Segel and Priscilla Prem have big aspirations for fighting climate change with batteries. Those plans got supercharged last week when the team won first place in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition, taking home a $25,000 prize and lots of momentum for their company.

“Entrepreneurship is always a risk, and this really validated our idea and the hard work we’ve been putting into this project,” said Prem. “It will enable us to focus much more heavily on getting our product up and running.”

That product is the FlowCell, a system for measuring the health of a kind of battery called redox flow batteries. Prem and Segel, both chemical engineering PhD students in the Swanson School of Engineering, see this technology as having big potential for enabling wider adoption of renewable energy. 

“The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow — there’s a gap, and batteries are the best option to fill that gap because they can store excess energy and release it when we need it,” Segel said. 

Pitt’s Big Idea Center hosts the Randall Family Big Idea Competition each year from February through April with the support of Pitt alumnus and trustee Robert P. Randall (A&S ’65) and family. Launched in 2009, the pitch competition gives student entrepreneurs the chance to develop ideas through mentorship and feedback and compete for $100,000 in prize money. 

Segel and Prem developed their idea through 80 interviews with potential customers, discovering that a lack of diagnostic tools was preventing the adoption of redox flow batteries, which can take up the size of an entire building. The product they’re developing combines hardware and software to provide information about factors that are important for the battery’s health. 

The team started with the idea of discovering materials for use in flow batteries, but their mentors through the competition encouraged them to think bigger. 

The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow — there’s a gap, and batteries are the best option.

Becca Segel

“They helped us broaden our ideas — so I think it’s been very impactful for the company,” Segel said. 

Segel’s work with her advisors James McKone and Chris Wilmer, both faculty members in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, served as the basis for the technology. Prem handles market analysis and financial projections, while Maya Bhat, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University, has been working on software development. With the new boost from the competition funding, the team hopes to have a working prototype by the end of the summer. 

“It’s motivating that everyone picked a climate change company, because it’s so vitally important to think about stopping climate change,” said Segel. “The point of a PhD is to do something impactful. I think the best way to do that is through commercializing.” 

At the awards ceremony April 12, Big Idea Center Director Rhonda Schuldt said this year’s event was one of the most competitive she could remember.

“Students tell us it’s one of the most demanding, rigorous but rewarding things that they ever do,” she said. “All 21 teams deserve to be here tonight, and we’re just so proud of them.”

Other top-placing teams in the competition are developing diagnostics for aneurisms, technology for live performances and ways to connect colleges with students. 

See a full list of winners on the Big Idea Center website. 


— Patrick Monahan