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Diego Chavez poses for a photo with David and Roselyn Yun, sponsors of the $1,000 Most Promising Award.

A company led by a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa student that uses recycled plastics to produce fin keys for surfboards won a $1,000 innovation prize from the UH Breakthrough Innovation Challenge. The company was one of eight finalists that received up to $1,000 in funding to launch their inventions.

closeup of a key on a surfboard fin
Closeup of a fin key for a surfboard

Entrepreneurship major Diego Chavez is the founder of Gecko Plastics. The surfer from Guatemala has big dreams of removing plastics from Earth’s coastlines and recycling the materials into other products. His five-minute presentation impressed the judging panel and won him the $1,000 Most Promising Award, sponsored by David and Roselyn Yun.

“I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. I learned a lot about my business while preparing my pitch, working with my mentor and receiving feedback from the judges,” Chavez said. “The prize money will allow me to take Gecko Plastics to the next level; from prototype to market ready product.”

Breakthrough inventions

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2022 UH Breakthrough Innovation Challenge finalists

Hosted by the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship (PACE) in UH Mānoa’s Shidler College of Business, the competition challenged students to come up with viable solutions to real-world problems. Contestants presented a diverse range of ideas from a platform that allows patients to share their medical symptoms to a portable squeegee for tennis courts. The final round on November 17 featured eight teams and was conducted in front of a live audience at the Shidler college.

Prior to the final event, contestants submitted a two-minute video in which they detailed their breakthrough idea and its market potential. A preliminary judging panel selected the finalists. PACE then matched the finalists with volunteer mentors from the community to help the contestants further identify commercial opportunities for the idea and develop a five-minute presentation.

The challenge results were decided by a judging panel of four, which included Zachary Kim, co-founder and chief technology officer of Float; Jill Nakatsu, director of academic affairs for the UH Mānoa College of Engineering; Cindy Matsuki, SBIR manager with Innovate Hawaii; and Mark Tawara, founder of BrightLight Digital. Each judge was given a thumbs up emoji paddle, which they would use to raise for a “Yes” vote. Each thumbs up was worth $250, giving contestants a chance to win up to $1,000. Every contestant walked away with at least $250.

“This evening was a celebration of creativity, ambition and talent at UH,” said PACE Executive Director Sandra Fujiyama. “We were pleased to have participation from diverse areas of study, and are extremely proud of all the contestants for stepping out of their comfort zone to share their unique ideas. This is just the beginning of their startup journeys, and we hope to help them progress their ideas at PACE.”

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