Making Waves

Sunburst Sensors device takes home prestigious XPRIZE for measuring ocean health


Categories: Alumni , Campus , Academic , Research

Sunburst Sensors device takes home prestigious XPRIZE for measuring ocean health
Sunburst Sensors device takes home prestigious XPRIZE for measuring ocean health

The sensors and the awards. (Photo by Todd Goodrich)Sunburst Sensors LLC, a company born of University of Montana research, won $1.5 million in XPRIZE funding in July for producing the best device to affordably, accurately, and efficiently measure ocean chemistry.

The Missoula team won two $750,000 grand prizes—one for affordability and one for accuracy—during the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE competition. Two second-place awards for $250,000 also were awarded. The winners were announced during a lavish ceremony at the Harold Pratt mansion in New York City.

“It’s gratifying to have Sunburst Sensors’ employees recognized for their commitment and hard work,” says Mike DeGrandpre, the UM chemistry professor and oceanographer who launched Sunburst Sensors in 1999. “This XPRIZE competition is focused on ocean acidification, and it is rewarding to help raise awareness of this critical issue.”

The news of Sunburst’s win was featured on CBS This Morning and in Forbes magazine, Popular Science, Business Insider, the Huffington Post and Yahoo Finance, among other national media outlets.

The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE competition challenged teams of engineers, scientists, and innovators worldwide to create a precise pH sensor to measure ocean chemistry from its shallowest waters to deepest depths. The competition was designed to incentivize creation of these sensors for the study and monitoring of ocean acidification’s impact on marine ecosystems and ocean health, driving the industry forward by providing the data needed to take action and produce results.

“This is a really important issue because 30 percent of the emissions that we put into the atmosphere are absorbed into the oceans,” Schmidt, benefactor of the award, told CBS This Morning. “We’re changing the chemistry of the ocean and that changes all life in the oceans.”

During a two-year period, twenty-four teams around the world competed for the ocean health XPRIZE. The teams entered twenty-seven devices in the competition. Fourteen teams advanced to coastal-water trials, and then five finalists completed deep-sea trials to depths of 3,000 meters. The other finalist teams were from Britain, Norway, Japan, and the U.S.

XPRIZE competitions are designed to encourage innovative solutions for pressing issues from the world’s brightest minds. The initial competition in 1996 resulted in the first private industry-produced reusable spacecraft, while the 2010 competition produced the first 100-mile-per-gallon vehicle.

Sunburst Sensors employs nine people. Company CEO James Beck says the winning device sucks in sea water, puts in a dye that changes color depending on the water’s pH—much like litmus paper—and then shines a light through the dye. The resulting color of the water reveals the acidity.

“It’s exciting to see a dedicated and hard-working faculty member from our University receive national recognition for the fruits of his research,” says Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. “It also demonstrates how investments in university-based research can lead to companies that produce jobs and products that can have such a positive impact—like protecting the water in our oceans, lakes, and rivers.”

For several years, Sunburst Sensors was nurtured at MonTEC, UM’s business incubator. The business has since graduated to its own location at 1226 W. Broadway. For more information about Sunburst, visit

comments powered by Disqus