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Living in the desert, water is often a top concern for towns and businesses alike. But efficiency in the water industry is about much more than limiting water usage. A local business affiliated with the University of Arizona Center for Innovation recently won at what is dubbed the world’s largest business pitch competition thanks to their technology that can benefit the water and energy industries. 

Sylvan Source is a water treatment and energy management company, and on July 15, became the only American company to win an award in the final round of the pitch competition Unicorn Battle. The Unicorn Battle, branded as the world’s largest startup pitch contest, gathers companies from around the world to pitch their ideas to investors via fast-paced presentations. 

“Both our presentation and our responses had to be very crisp. We covered a lot of ground in three minutes,” said Laura Demmons, co-founder and CEO of Sylvan Source. “It’s given us great exposure and it’s certainly a positive addition to the momentum we’ve already seen. For us, this has already directly led to serious discussions about significant financing for us. It hasn’t been that long since we won, but we’re already engaging in some pretty important

discussions.” 

While winning the competition itself does not come with a cash prize, it places companies on investor radar. Past winners have received nearly $300 million in funding thanks in part to connections made during Unicorn Battles. 

A “unicorn” is an industry term for a private startup company valued at more than $1 billion. Unicorn Battle attempts to highlight these promising companies through a series of pitch competitions. To begin, preliminary pitch battles select the best companies from the North America, Latin America, Silicon Valley, Asia, Middle East, Southeastern Asia & Oceania, Africa, Eastern & Western Europe markets. Regional winners then go on to the world cup. 

Originally from California, Sylvan Source won first place in this year’s Silicon Valley competition in June. In the World Cup, they came in third behind companies from Israel and Austria. Each finalist was given only three minutes to pitch their company and three minutes for a Q&A after. Judges for the Unicorn world cup include venture capitalists and business owners from around the world. Judging took place immediately after the pitches. 

“We had to start with a compelling value proposition for the pitch. And lucky for us, some of the judges had operational experience in industrial plants, or some background in industry in general,” Demmons said. “So the judges who had experience at industrial plants and industry all recognized the implications of our proposition and felt it was

compelling.” 

Sylvan Source has a foot in both the worlds of water treatment and thermal energy. Their core technology is a patented water treatment system to be used for industrial and municipal purposes. The water treatment system can use energy from a variety of sources, enhancing efficiency and reducing costs and footprint. Due to this energy efficiency, their systems are estimated to operate at half the cost. 

“We learned that energy and water were so closely linked that in order to do something game-changing in water, we actually had to start by doing something game-changing in energy,” Demmons said. “Our physics are different; we don’t use the heat exchangers that everyone else uses. We use a proprietary thermal transfer mechanism.” 

Their technology is not currently deployed at any municipal water or energy facility. However, they have completed two field studies and are in talks about deploying their first commercial systems. They hope to begin in the Tucson area, but are in talks with industrial companies throughout Arizona and desert Southwest.

“It’s so efficient that we have a much smaller system to operate, we don’t need the surface area that is required by other technologies,” Demmons said. 

Although Sylvan Source is affiliated with UACI, they originated in California, hence their competing in the Silicon Valley round. They became connected with the University of Arizona after Demmons was visiting Green Valley and reached out to Anita Bell, director at the UACI and a power connector with the Department of Energy. Sylvan Source applied to UACI last year, and have since seen success in local competitions as well, including Venture Madness, hosted by Invest Southwest and the Arizona Commerce Authority.

“Since we connected with UACI, it’s been a great experience,” Demmons said. “The thing that’s interesting is they’re able to help businesses that are just at the very basic level of an idea, all the way through to a company like ours that has raised about $15M already, has done deep research and has already fielded pilot tests. And they’ve still managed to be helpful to us, contributing to our business plans, models and presentations. It’s only made us more competitive, which has helped us win this Unicorn event.”