UA entrepreneurial students win funding for energy-saving idea


Clean Energy Challenge finalists Courtney Gras, an electrical engineering junior, and Tom Vo, an M.S. electrical engineering candidate, with their Unified Energy Management System.

It took eight years of personal commitment to her education, and now 23-year old Courtney Gras is poised to become one of the region's leading entrepreneurs, with an energy-saving idea that could revolutionize the $10 billion energy management market. The young Aurora, Ohio, native, was among a small group of university students throughout the Midwest to compete in the two-day Clean Energy Challenge in Chicago. The competition provides an opportunity for funding to bring innovative product ideas to market. 

On Feb. 29, the first day of the challenge, Gras and her business parner, Tom Vo, won one of five $10,000 "runner up" prizes and
 defeated the other schools from Ohio; Case Western University and Cleveland State University.

On March 1, they competed for $100,000 against seven other winners from Michigan,
Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota, Kentucky and Wisconsin. NuMat Technologies, a student-led company from Northwestern University in Illinois, captured top honors in the Student Challenge.

Surrounded by support

Gras' journey from high school student taking postsecondary classes at The University of Akron campus, to president of Design Flux Technologies, a UA spin-out company, is a story of persistence, passion and planning — with the support of fellow students, faculty and some angel investors. It is also the story of what can happen when a university supports research that is relevant, community connections to support student innovations, and entrepreneurship to inspire student success.

"Tom and I have made many sacrifices for our company over the past year," says Gras. "We have delayed our graduation date so that we had time to work on the company and move it forward." Gras, an honors student, is a junior in electrical engineering. Her partner, Vo, chief technology officer for Design Flux, is an M.S. candidate in electrical engineering, having received a B.S. at UA.

This is a close up of the Unified Energy Management System developed by Courtney Gras and Tom Vo.

All-in-one technology

They made their trip to Chicago "on the wings" of an angel investor, namely their professor/business coach who taught them at the UA College of Business Administration and the Women's Entrepreneurship Program of the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron. 

"These two students have shown tenacity, a willingness to learn and to be coached,” says Robert E. Chalfant, director of the Fitzgerald Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at UA. Chalfant provided funding after taking a special interest in their product. "I am an electrical engineer and my own summer internship project in my college years was the study of rechargeable batteries for man-portable equipment."

Design Flux Technologies' product is an integrated hardware and software platform technology for batteries that offers both a flexible and comprehensive energy management solution scalable across the diverse alternative energy industries. The technology is the first all-in-one management system of its kind. The patent, developed by the students' UA faculty adviser, Dr. Tom Hartley, is held by The University of Akron.

Learn more:

Northeast Ohio Innovators, Sound of Ideas on WCPN, March 27

Media contact: Eileen Korey, 330-972-6476 or