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Innovation challenge awards $25K to UNLV students with sustainable economic idea

AP Photo/Martha Irvine

In this Feb. 29, 2012 photo, seed shells fleck growing microgreens grow in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood.

COVID-19 hit Las Vegas hard; entertainment, casinos, tourism, it all came to a halt. Las Vegas, and Nevada in general, is starting to bounce back.

After COVID, after the recession, people want a more diverse economy in Las Vegas so it isn’t so reliant on the gaming industry.

UNLV’s innovation challenge is targeted toward diversification. It’s a Shark Tank-style competition where teams of students compete with their most innovative idea to create jobs and a more sustainable Las Vegas economy.

The finale for the competition included local business leaders, entrepreneurs and UNLV staff as judges.

The winning team, which earned $25,000 in start-up funds, was just announced.

“The factors that influenced the challenge began, actually, before the pandemic, when a need for more economic diversity in Southern Nevada, came to a height,” said Robert Rippee, a professor and executive director of Blackfire Innovation.

With an economy focused on one industry, he said the area is more susceptible to the ups and downs on a much larger scale. The challenge was to try and solve that.

The competition was open to all students at UNLV, but teams had to be made up of different disciplines and different colleges. Rippee also led a series of workshops where they brought in mentors for each team.

Shaimaa Abdelhaleem is a doctorate candidate in geoscience, while her teammate Jonathan Kim is a graduate student in quantitative finance.

“We wanted to solve a nagging problem here in Nevada,” said Abdelhaleem. The team initially focused on multiple areas: bad diets, climate change deadlines, healthcare, and retirement.

“We found solutions for each and then we put together a rubric through which we can evaluate each idea -- which of them is going to be more profitable or bring more social and economic impact and Southern Nevada economy,” she said.

They landed on Kim’s idea, microgreens. He said malnutrition is worse in Nevada than most states. Microgreens carry four to 40 times the nutrition of their adult counterpart.

By the cost-effective way microgreens are grown, Kim said anywhere from food deserts around downtown to high-end restaurants on the Strip could benefit from its use.

“We're going to export the growing unit to the global market. We will also have the distribution locations. We plan on opening shops, for example, that can provide different services to the customers like workshops and how to eat microgreens, how to implement healthy eating habits in their daily meals,” said Abdelhaleem.

They started with broccoli in the challenge but expect to expand.

With the $25,000, Kim said they plan to find an engineer to help design the first product, microgreen growing “kits,” to market.

The second-place winner of the competition was a material for replacing single-use plastics with biodegradable materials.

Robert Rippee, professor and executive director, Blackfire Innovation, UNLV;  Jonathan Kim, graduate student, UNLV;  Shaimaa Abdelhaleem, dotorate candidate, UNLV

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Christopher Alvarez is a news producer and podcast audio editor at Nevada Public Radio for the State of Nevada program, and has been with them for over a year.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the online editor for Nevada Public Radio. She curates content on, our weekly newsletter and social media for Nevada Public Radio and Desert Companion.