CWU students receive grant to develop sustainable smartphone

  • September 22, 2023
  • Rune Torgersen

Every year, close to 150 million phones are discarded in the U.S. alone, generating tons of hard-to-process e-waste and squandering precious recyclable material.

A team of Central Washington University students has decided to tackle this issue, with the help of a $5,000 grant from VentureWell, an organization committed to fostering innovation in technology.

CWU Information Technology and Administrative Management (ITAM) graduate student Kevin Lomax and former ITAM student David Rocha first set out to design a sustainable, repairable smartphone alternative in 2022, presenting their research at the SOURCE conference after meeting in a sustainability-focused ITAM class taught by their eventual mentor, Dr. Susan Rivera. Lomax said the idea sprang from seeing the conditions under which current smartphones are processed after being replaced with a newer model.

“The idea started as trying to limit the electronic waste that smartphones and electronics, in general, cause, due to the major issues it causes for impoverished countries that have to recycle the electronics in a very unsafe way,” Lomax said. “We started by testing the viability of alternatives to adhesives in providing water resistance, and the project has just sort of evolved from there.”

In the current market, smartphones are assembled using adhesives, which provide the water resistance that has become a selling point for many brands. While waterproofing is important, this has the unfortunate side effect of making phones near-impossible to open and repair for the average consumer, leading many consumers to replace the whole phone instead.

Additionally, new phone models are released every year, offering incremental upgrades to existing hardware at a high price tag, and putting further pressure on consumers to continuously replace their device with the latest version. Lomax says the product his team is designing would address these factors through a proprietary water-proofing process and modular design that allows users to upgrade their phone without having to buy a new one.

“Rather than having to buy a completely new phone in order to upgrade, you could purchase the individual module that you’d like to improve,” he said. “This serves the dual purposes of sparing the environment and saving you money. That’s something that a lot of companies are resistant to, because they want to see the profits of selling you an entirely new smartphone whenever your old one breaks or becomes obsolete.”

Lomax and Rocha were selected for the summer 2023 cohort of the VentureWell E-Team Grant Program based on the potential for their proposal to have a significant environmental impact, as well as the strength of their application, which they submitted with the help of Rivera. Along with the $5,000 grant, the program also sponsored the team’s entry into the Pioneer workshop in Boston, which introduced them to the entrepreneurship resources they’ll need to get their product off the ground.

The team now has an opportunity to apply for stage 2 of the program and earn a $20,000 grant to further develop their business. They also would have a chance to attend more courses to bolster their skillsets and prepare them for the nuances of running a successful company.

“Starting the business will be the most difficult part of the process,” Lomax said. “Making those connections with people who manufacture screens, chips, and all the other individual components that go into a smartphone will be an uphill battle, especially as a small business, but I’m confident we can get it done.”

As the product moves into the prototyping stage, the team has recruited CWU Engineering Technologies, Safety, and Construction student Jonah Milnor to assist on the hardware development side. By adding Milnor to the team—and receiving continual support from CWU faculty and staff, including Rivera—the idea of a repairable, modular, eco-friendly smartphone may soon become a reality. According to Rocha, the keys to success in endeavors like this are passion and having faith in your cause.

“It’s all about getting out of your comfort zone and asking for the help you need to make a societal change,” he said. “There are connections and groups out there ready to support your ideas and bring them to the next level, and all you have to do is show them you’ve got the passion and the talent to get it done. For me, it started with that sustainability class, and meeting Kevin, but eventually it became obvious that this was work I had to do, to do my part in saving our environment.”

Lomax stressed that all it takes is a good idea, a supportive and knowledgeable mentor, and the willingness to put in the work to make a difference.

“We’re just two students who were willing to put in the work,” he said. “I think a lot of people might shy away from research because of this perception that you have to be a particularly talented or exceptional kind of person to make it work, but the truth is, these opportunities are available to just about anyone who’s ready to put in the effort. There are people at CWU who are ready to help you, and that’s really important for every student here.”

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Rune Torgersen

University Relations