Photo by Evan Krape July 23, 2020
Students spent spring semester moving environmentally beneficial ideas closer to reality
Before taking the Eco-Entrepreneurship practicum class, University of Delaware student Alanna Weiss didn’t know much about mushroom mycelium, the vegetative body for fungi that produce mushrooms. As the 2020 spring semester wrapped up, Weiss admitted that she was borderline obsessed with the material.
Along with her business partner, Sean Frazee, who was a senior majoring in chemical engineering, Weiss worked all semester on a product that utilizes mushroom mycelium in building materials, specifically looking at using the byproduct to produce drywall and insulation and exploring if it could be an alternative to cement.
“Mushrooms are the world’s oldest decomposers, and the mycelium eats anything and everything you put between it and its food,” said Weiss, who, as a senior, also majored in Hospitality Business Management in UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics. “The goal of our project is to use the mushroom mycelium to eat through toxic chemical waste and then use the byproduct of that process to make building materials for homes.”
Weiss was one of five students who took the Eco-Entrepreneurship practicum class, which is part of the Eco-Entrepreneurship Certificate Program, a partnership between UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment (CEOE) and the Horn Entrepreneurship program.
CEOE Dean Estella Atekwana said the certificate program, open to undergraduates in any major, and especially its culminating practicum are just initial steps the college is taking to achieve one of the key objectives in its new strategic plan: enhancing innovation and entrepreneurship to provide solutions for a more sustainable future.
“We are faced with a lot of environmental problems, and we need to take our faculty’s and our students’ work to market,” Atekwana said. “The research they are doing together and their breakthrough discoveries have tremendous potential to provide solutions to some of the most important societal challenges.”
Under the leadership of David Lawson, who worked for 27 years at the Procter and Gamble Company in product development and innovation and is now an adjunct associate professor at Horn Entrepreneurship, the practicum students explored everything from products designed to stop toxic algal blooms to plant-based foods and mass transportation solutions for better connected cities.
With opportunities abounding for environmentally friendly products, Lawson said that it has been a perfect opportunity to get students exposed to how to get their ideas turned into tangible products. The goal for each student is to have a classic 12-slide pitch deck ready to present by the end of the semester.
“In that pitch deck, I want the students to think about: what do you need to continue this project moving forward,” said Lawson. “What is the market you’re going after? Who is your target consumer? What’s the job to be done with this technology, and what is your competitive landscape?”
After surveying their competitors, the students determine what sets them apart in their market, as well as evaluate their products’ strengths and weaknesses. Lawson wants the students to be able to get minimal viable prototypes of their products as quickly as possible to their target consumers.
“Then they can say to their consumers, ‘Go give this a try and tell me is it working or not’ and that’s a lot of the principles of entrepreneurship that come from trying to have a start-up,” said Lawson. “It’s basically teaching the students how to use these best innovation practices.”
The multidisciplinary group of students were engaged all semester and Lawson said he wanted the students to work on products that were relevant to them and that they would be passionate about.
“I said to them at the beginning, at Procter and Gamble, we learned that in order to build innovation, you either have to love something or hate something,” said Lawson. “You either love it so much that you want it to grow, or you hate it so much that you want to change it.”
I-Corps Grant recipients
Two of the five students in the class — Weiss and Yanfei Wang — applied for and received National Science Foundation I-Corps grants to further their projects. Managed through Horn Entrepreneurship, the I-Corps program helps fine-tune a team’s business plan with the main focus on the consumer via direct interviews to fully understand the addressable market and what problem the team’s solution is really addressing.
Wang, a doctoral student in CEOE, received the I-Corp grant for her product known as DinoSHIELD.
The technology, which was highlighted in a UDaily article in September of 2019, looks to come up with an environmentally friendly solution to Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs).
HABs pose a threat to marine organisms and human health worldwide and are continuing to expand globally. Among the HAB species, dinoflagellates can produce the most problematic varieties of toxins that can be accumulated through the food chain. The economic impact of HABs is estimated to be $8 billion per year globally.
Wang has been working with Kathryn Coyne, director of the Delaware Sea Grant College Program, and they have a provisional patent on their technology. Having researched HABs in the Delaware Inland Bays for a decade, Coyne’s lab found an algicidal bacterium broadly distributed in the Delaware bays that secrete algicidal compounds that target dinoflagellates specifically. This bacterium is also not harmful to other microbial species and invertebrates such as oysters and crabs, as well as juvenile fish.
“By embedding the bacteria in alginate beads, which is a nontoxic extract from seaweed commonly used in food, we can deploy the bacteria at sites that are at risk of harmful algal blooms and retrieve them when no longer needed,” said Wang.
As a scientist with no background in business, Wang said it has been incredibly beneficial to learn from Lawson.
“Before this whole process, I had no idea how to start a business and put a product into the market,” said Wang. “David talked with me about the technology, the potential customers, and helped me with the business model plan. He has a lot of experience in business with marketing technology and that’s been helpful, to hear the stories from him. It’s been giving me some insights.”
For those interested in the Eco-Entrepreneurship Certificate or other certificate programs offered from UD, check out the Horn certificate program website.