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Nima stood on the dais in that huge room in Oklahoma City. He was a little nervous in his crisp suit, but you’d never be able to tell if you didn’t know him.
He told the crowd a story about a tiny micro-bead of plastic. It started its life on land, of course, then found itself floating in the ocean. The castaway speck is eaten by something small, like a shrimp. The next day, a fish snaps up the shrimp and, with it, the bead.
This cycle goes on and on until, one day, a fisherman pulls a still bigger fish from the waters, carves it up and serves it to his family – bead and all.
“We’re eating our own trash,” Nima said to the crowd.
Inspired by nature
Nima ShahabShahmir is an information systems student at WVU Tech. Growing up in Tehran, Iran, he spent many of his formative years living with an ever-present reminder of humanity’s impact on the environment. As one of the most polluted cities on the planet, Tehran’s blanket of smog claims dozens of lives every day.
Then his family moved to Lewisburg, West Virginia. It was a radical change, both in the pace of living and in access to the natural world around him.
Nima was inspired.
He turned that inspiration into a project he calls Future Fungi. It aims to replace plastic and Styrofoam products (think plastic cups and packing peanuts) with environmentally friendly, biodegradable, mushroom-based alternatives.
“As a kid, I was always around gardening, and the way the roots of plants grew always fascinated me. Once I learned about how fungi grows in nature, I knew it was an idea worth following,” he said.
A single plastic cup can persist in the environment for centuries after its one-time use. They’re durable and easy to come by though, so we keep using them.
So Nima created an alternative product that is environmentally sustainable, waterproof and lightweight. It also boasts an indefinite shelf life.
Nima conceived the idea a few years back, and it caught steam when he started working with the LaunchLab in Beckley.
In 2017, he won the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority’s Common Grounds competition. He went on to claim a $10,000 prize in the RCBI Vanguard Agricultural Competition.
Working alongside the LaunchLab, he conducted market research and developed marketing materials. He built prototypes out of mushrooms he grew in a makeshift lab in his bedroom. He even applied for a patent.
As he worked to get the project started, he found confidence in the power of his idea. He entered Future Fungi into business pitch competitions in West Virginia and one in St. Louis, where he had to deliver his “elevator pitch” on a real elevator.
Then he entered his project in the Commission for Environmental Cooperation’s Youth for Innovation Challenge, which led him to that massive stage in Oklahoma.
Nima was selected as one of three winners: one from Canada, one from Mexico and one from the United States. As the U.S. representative, he earned the chance to present his work to the continent’s top environmental officials at the Commission’s annual council session.
It was one of the top honors of his young career.
“I believe it is very important for students to participate because, as young entrepreneurs, we are solving different problems in unique and new ways. We have many environment problems facing us, but on the other hand, I believe that we are progressing towards a future where most of these concerns will be solved efficiently,” he said.
Kickstarting the startups
Nima’s story is unique, but he’s not the only student making waves in entrepreneurship. He was the very first student to work with the LaunchLab at WVU Tech, and his story has been an inspiration to dozens since the lab opened.
The LaunchLab is a program that started on WVU’s Morgantown campus in 2014. Across the University system, it has already helped more than 400 clients.
The program offers tools for prototyping new products, developing a proof of concept and conducting market research. It helps participants set up intellectual property protections, recruit team members, connect with experts and access that first crucial batch of customers.
Beckley’s LaunchLab director Nora Myers says the program runs on a simple set of principles.
“Entrepreneurship and innovation are the keys to economic prosperity for our students,
the region and the state. You don’t have to leave our beautiful region to have
a successful, fulfilling career doing something you love,”
In addition to its various services, the LaunchLab is also home to critical workspaces. The design lab offers 3D printing, programming projects and equipment for interactive design work. There’s a maker space with shop tools and a wearables lab for fashion design. Then there’s the One Button Studio where students can create videos for presentations, pitches and commercials for their product or business.
The LaunchLab also helps students enter and prepare for pitch competitions.
“These competitions have become increasingly popular. They allow winners to receive prize money, which can help further develop their idea and give them exposure to influential people,” said Myers.
Myers helped prep a team of mechanical engineering majors for the inaugural Women’s Pitch Competition in Morgantown.
The Tech team shared their idea for a protective batting glove with an increased layer of protection for baseball and softball players.
“It was a great experience,” said team member Adriana Rosendo. “It was certainly worth it because it lets you see and learn what other women are doing out there. I learned women have a big impact and they can do big things. Everybody had their own innovative idea and each one took something simple and made something great.”
Another teammate, Alexis Branch, said the experience was something she’ll never forget.
“That to me was a little crazy. You got to meet these CEOs who own multi-million-dollar companies and have them come to you and say ‘we like your idea and, if you can get these things done, we’ll help sponsor you,’” she said.
And for the team, the project was personal.
“We got this idea because we play the game ourselves. We knew what was missing,” said Alexis.
Armed with that passion for the sport – and some serious market research – the group is making strides towards launching their product.
“There are five companies that have attempted to do this, and they’re all hitting major key points where injuries occur,” Alexis said.
“So we’re picking up where they left off, creating more protection and using a more efficient way to reduce injury by up to 90%. We’re going to hopefully get our prototype built, get a design patent, a license agreement with a production company and get it on the market,” she added.
Myers also worked with Trevor Johnson, a mechanical engineering major who graduated in the spring.
Trevor grew up in Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, where he developed a hobby in long-range target shooting. He noticed that storing and accessing rifle ammunition in the field was a clumsy affair.
So he came up with the idea for a device he called Ammu-Lock. It’s a locking ammunition holder that attaches to the side of a firearm. The device holds five rounds of rifle ammunition and can be engaged or disengaged with the press of a button. It allows hunters and sport shooters to maneuver in the field without fear of losing ammunition or fumbling through their kit to find more rounds.
Trevor worked with the LaunchLab to conduct market research so he could better understand his market and the industry. He developed high-quality video where he showcases the product. He even created prototypes for testing using CAD software and a 3D printer.
In March, he began to take his show on the road. He participated in his first LaunchLab Idea Challenge event in Morgantown. A few months later, he displayed his work at WVU IdeaHub’s Demo Day, where students and faculty from all three campuses shared their research and ideas.
“I loved it. It was very fascinating to see everyone’s ideas and to discuss my invention with others. I received a lot of feedback and got to speak with a few potential investors for my product,” he said.
Small campus, big ideas
The LaunchLab has been critical in getting ideas up and running, but there’s also been an effort to infuse entrepreneurship into other aspects of the student experience.
Last year, four faculty members in the WVU system were named to the Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship Academy Faculty Fellows program. These IDEA fellows are creating or modifying courses to include entrepreneurship components.
Among them were political science professor Dr. Andrea Kent and biology professor Dr. Adrienne Williams, both faculty members at WVU Tech. The two attended special training programs and have developed courses that encourage students to think about their work with an entrepreneurial mindset.
Williams established a class in translational science tailored to juniors and seniors.
“The goal of my course is to introduce students to the scope of translational science and, in particular, to emphasize students’ individual opportunities and skills for contributions to innovation, research, design and fundamental entrepreneurial practices. I want to educate and inspire students from diverse backgrounds and skills to pursue more leadership roles and maybe start their own businesses,” she said.
For Williams, it’s about recognizing opportunities and helping students be “more aware of themselves and their surroundings.”
That focus on how the world works around them is often a key driver in student innovation.
Take recent graduate Samuel Stone. Like most students, Samuel spent his summers working. He landed a few summer stints at gourmet salt company J.Q Dickinson Salt Works in Malden, West Virginia.
During his time at the company, he learned a lot about the process. He learned how they draw and refine the product, which requires sifting – a whole lot of sifting.
“They pump liquid brine out of the ground and put it through evaporation houses until salt crystals form. We then have some processing to do before it can be sold. The sifting process can be one of the most labor-intensive aspects of production, so our job was to decrease the labor intensiveness and increase the efficiency of the process,” he said.
Stone was part of a four-student senior design project team. The group created a sifter to fit the very unique environment of the small company.
“We needed to make the process continuous, we had to make our sifting screens interchangeable and we wanted to make it human-powered to not pollute the work environment with a lot of noise,” he said.
The team drew inspiration from an unlikely source: antique sewing machines that use a foot pedal to rotate a large gear.
“We had to make it human-powered, keep a motor off of it and keep it small enough to fit in their shop without taking up a lot of space. We worked with their current bins because that’s what they have on stock to store the salt. It’s very purpose-built for this specific business,” said Stone.
Momentum in innovation
Students are finding that entrepreneurship isn’t a concept that stays in the classroom. They’re taking their ideas well beyond the academic year.
Nima still has a few semesters left, and he plans to spend them working alongside Myers in the LaunchLab. He’s even working with the lab to create a dedicated space for growing the Future Fungi model.
“This will be a versatile space to work on eco-friendly products and which leads to growth of the next stage of prototypes. The next stage items will have an improved quality and will be another step closer to being introduced to the business markets,” he said.
Others have graduated and are moving on with their careers as they continue to work on their projects.
Trevor is working as a mechanical engineer in the casting department at Constellium. It’s a manufacturer of aluminum products in Ravenswood, West Virginia. Even among the busyness of launching an entire career, he’s still developing the Ammu-Lock. He hopes to land the product on store shelves in the coming years.