MISSOULA -- Here are two things that happened when a small Missoula company took home not just one but two grand XPRIZEs in an international competition.
Sunburst Sensors won $1.5 million, or two grand prize purses of $750,000 each.
CEO Jim Beck, a 1981 graduate of Capital High School, woke up early Tuesday to be on the Weather Channel with Al Roker -- and talked with media for some 12 hours the rest of the day.
"Mike and I were both somewhat surprised and humbled by winning both prizes," Beck said in an email.
Mike DeGrandpre, founder and chemistry professor at the University of Montana and fellow 1981 Capital High grad, launched the science-based company in 1999.
"It's gratifying to have Sunburst Sensors' employees recognized for their commitment and hard work," DeGrandpre said in a statement through UM. "This XPRIZE competition is focused on ocean acidification, and it is rewarding to help raise awareness of this critical issue."
Sunburst Sensors develops chemical sensors for marine and freshwater applications. The company competed in a contest designed to be an incentive for technology that accurately and affordably measures ocean acidification.
"The ocean is in the midst of a silent crisis as a result of increasing levels of CO2, with a direct impact on our climate, marine creatures, and on communities that rely on shellfish, fisheries and coral reefs," Wendy Schmidt said in a statement. Schmidt is president of the Schmidt Family Foundation and co-founder of the Schmdit Ocean Institute with her husband, Eric.
XPRIZE is an organization working to solve "the world's grand challenges" by inspiring "brilliant innovators" and stimulating research and development.
The final phase of the contest had finalists placing their sensors for three months in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, for one month in a coastal environment at the Seattle Aquarium and, finally, in the deep ocean off Hawaii where the instruments were measured for accuracy and proficiency.
The device Sunburst developed pulls in water, adds a dye and uses a laser to display a color indicating the pH level. It's called a SAMI, for submersible autonomous moored instrument.
The company submitted an i-SAMI, for inexpensive, and a t-SAMI, for titanium; the i-SAMI won the affordability prize, and the t-SAMI took the accuracy win.
"The t-SAMI demonstrated unprecedented accuracy -- accuracy as good as a fully equipped professional laboratory -- in both coastal and deep-sea environments up to 3,000 meters," according to the XPRIZE.
The i-SAMI earned praise, too: "The i-SAMI has a projected per-unit manufacturing cost of under $1,000, with accuracy comparable to the best existing commercial sensor."
Beck said he and DeGrandpre knew one of their units, the t-SAMI, had a chance, but nothing was certain.
"Frankly, the deep deployments were very challenging -- temperature, pH and pressure are changing very fast, and that can confound an instrument like the SAMI, which was designed for longer, slower changes," Beck said.
He said the team also didn't know how the judges would evaluate affordability.
"We felt like it performed well, but a lot of scoring was assigned to other requirements, like 'ease of use.' We were somewhat optimistic that we could at least place second in one of the purses -- but had no expectation of winning both," Beck said.
He said Sunburst Sensors plans to use its wins to accelerate the development of the i-SAMI-pH as a real product.
"What we entered was a prototype that needs quite a bit of refinement to be a real world product," Beck said.
The company employs nine people, mostly professionals in the hard sciences who are savvy with instrumentation. Beck said it is looking at adding staff, but it does not have concrete plans at the moment.
"For better or worse, this came as a pretty big surprise to win both prizes, and we haven't had time to think everything through as yet," he said.
The company's work was born out of research at UM. According to a news release from the university, 24 teams competed in all, entering 27 devices into the global competition.
"It's exciting to see a dedicated and hardworking faculty member from our university receive national recognition for the fruits of his research," said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship, in a statement about DeGrandpre.
"It also demonstrates how investments in university-based research can lead to companies that produce jobs and products that can have such a positive impact -- such as protecting the water in our oceans, lakes and rivers."
Senior director of oceans Paul Bunje said the sensors represent breakthroughs, and XPRIZE is excited to get them into the hands of scientists, conservation groups, business and industry, and citizen scientists to provide robust data on the ocean.
"XPRIZE is humbled to witness what happens when a global community of innovators focuses their time and resources on solving a Grand Challenge," Bunje said in a statement.
Second-place awards went to ANB Sensors of England for affordability, and to Team DuraFET from Minnesota and California for accuracy. Each took home $250,000.