In early September, Sustainable Invention Immersion Week, an intensive entrepreneurial boot camp in which students develop a sustainable product business model, returned to the University of Oregon campus after a one-year hiatus.
Open to both graduate and undergraduate students from across the University of Oregon campus, regardless of major, participants in the program took a sustainable product from concept to a workable business model, learning from a mix of guest speakers, mentors, and collaborative work.
The $1,500 first-place winner at the 2019 Sustainable Invention Immersion Week was AgriFibre, a better soil solution for increased crop production using a proprietary roll-out material to grow microgreens.
“We saw an immense opportunity for microgreens to solve issues in communities having arid lands and to better utilize low-tech vertical farming,” AgriFibre team member and product design major Tyler Wilkinson said.
AgriFibre plans to start growing microgreens and selling them to local restaurants, farms, and grocery stores in the Eugene and Springfield area. Profits from those sales will go toward the research of their proprietary material and further development of the business.
“It was an intense experience to say the least,” Wilkinson said, “to take what could have been a three-month course, and condense it down to just five days. That’s when your brain starts really firing the jets,” he said.
The theme of this year’s Sustainable Invention Immersion Week was “Less But Better,” seeking new ways to address a need while eliminating or significantly reducing problems associated with material use. The State of Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality Vision 2050 Materials Management Plan was the framework for the event. In addition, all concepts had to have a projected annual revenue of at least $100 million, encouraging students to think big for greater impact on society.
Each participant in the 2019 Sustainable Invention Week learned to apply user-centered design, as well as the principles of green chemistry and life-cycle thinking. Students also learned how to construct a viable business model with an identified target market and develop and practice their pitch to potential investors.
They considered the upstream impact of their product, discussed raw material selection, and learned about design options to minimize excess material use in their product’s manufacturing process.
Wilkinson said he particularly appreciated how Sustainable Innovation Immersion Week allowed his team to get help from the University of Oregon’s chemistry department. “It was a terrific opportunity to work out the more science-heavy aspects of AgriFibre’s business concept,” he said.
2019 judges, guest speakers, and mentors included Minal Mistry, business initiatives and partnerships director with the state of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality; Angie Marzano, waste reduction specialist with Lane County Waste Management; and Briana Buckles, sustainability manager at Yogi Tea. The cohort also took a tour of PakTech, a Eugene-based, global company focused on sustainable packaging.
The first Sustainable Invention Immersion Week was in 2017, and 2017 winners and participants went on to secure a grant from the National Science Foundation, legally organize, and start two businesses and raise capital.
“We’re hoping the program has similar educational impact from this last cohort,” said Kate Harmon, program manager and director of cross-campus engagement for the Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship, a lead organizer of the cross-campus event.
Second and third place winners at this year’s event were Roduce, an organic food preservation system, and Nativ Solution, a sustainable aggregate designed as to complete the lifecycle of concrete.
Harmon sees Sustainable Invention Immersion Week as an important part of the Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship’s effort to promote cross-campus, interdisciplinary collaboration and challenge students to think critically in order to solve major societal health and environmental problems.
“The exceptional quality of this year’s venture ideas proved to me that when students are encouraged to think big and pushed to explore new disciplines, they can accomplish anything,” said Harmon.