UML Students Among Entrepreneurs and Startups Competing in Innovation Hub’s New Pitch Contest
By Ed Brennen
A research team from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, composed of Assoc. Prof. Weile Yan and Ph.D. student Mythreyi Sivaraman, is developing technology that will help recycle battery materials such as lithium, nickel and cobalt more efficiently, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the environment.
Their project placed third out of five teams at the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub’s inaugural Clean Green Challenge, a pitch contest for entrepreneurs and startups from across the region focused on sustainability.
“This was my first time to pitch, and I was looking to get as much feedback and information from the judges as possible to advance our technology,” said Sivaraman, a fourth-year environmental engineering Ph.D. student from Bangalore, India, who earned a $500 check for her team.
Pacto Medical, which is developing a collapsible, pre-filled syringe that reduces the packaging footprint by 40%, won the first-place prize of $4,000 and also received the “Best Business Plan” award.
GRAFF Inc., which is turning textile waste into a new sustainable material that can be used in the fashion and hospitality industries, earned a second-place check for $1,000. They also won “Best Presentation” and were voted fan favorite.
Assoc. Prof. of Management Scott Latham, who emceed the event, noted that 14% of all venture capital investment (about $90 billion) is currently going toward the growing cluster of green technology.
“You hear a lot about artificial intelligence, but by 2025, climate technology investments by corporations will be between $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion, while AI will be only $1 trillion,” Latham said. “You can’t overstate how important this cluster is going to be for the commonwealth, and we’re playing a big role here at UMass Lowell.”
Indeed, the Clean Green Challenge represents the beginning of a strategic shift for UML’s Innovation Hub, according to Assoc. Vice Chancellor for Industry Partnerships and Economic Development Arlene Parquette.
“We’ve always had a thriving community of startup companies and innovators, but we’re really pivoting now and focusing our efforts on sustainability,” said Parquette, who hopes to leverage the university’s research prowess, as well as the success of the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy (RISE), a co-sponsor of the challenge.
RISE Executive Director Ruairi O’Mahony, who served as one of six judges for the contest, said it’s “a great example of how the work we’re doing at the Rist Institute can intersect with the work at the Innovation Hub.”
He added that it’s important to provide students with programs that support innovative thinking, such as the Sustainability Engagement & Enrichment Development (S.E.E.D.) Fund and the Rist DifferenceMaker Program, which now includes an award for Commitment to Sustainable Environment, sponsored by RISE.
Two teams that got their start in the DifferenceMaker Program also took part in the Clean Green Challenge.
The Auto Terra Project, led by junior environmental engineering major Ariel Shramko, is an enclosed food production system, or automated terrarium, that can address food insecurity and reduce the negative environmental impacts of industrial farming. Last year, it was one of 25 U.S. teams chosen to compete in the NASA Deep Space Food Challenge.
“Going into space is great, but we’re talking about applications on earth in this challenge,” said Shramko, a native of Attleboro, Massachusetts, who recently registered the company and serves as the CEO. The team also includes Michelle Connolly, a senior double-majoring in electrical engineering and physics, and Gitesh Shewatkar, a master’s student in computer engineering.
“It was a great opportunity to meet people and learn more,” Shramko said of the pitch contest. “We’re always open to learning.”
Project Poseidon, which won “Fan Favorite” at last fall’s DifferenceMaker Engineering Prototype competition, pitched their idea for an app-controlled rover that can remove plastic pollution from the ocean.
“We got a lot of feedback from DifferenceMakers that we took into consideration for this presentation,” said team leader Abdullah Jasim, a junior mechanical engineering major from Tyngsboro, Massachusetts. He was joined in the pitch by fellow mechanical engineering majors Stephen Luong, Mustafa Al Hado and Jeswin Jees.
“It’s great to see UMass Lowell students coming through the innovation ecosystem at the university,” O’Mahony said.
Daniel Schoener, owner of the boutique consulting company Adler Innovation, was the driving force behind the Clean Green Challenge. As a mentor for the Cleantech Open, the largest clean technology accelerator program in the world, he has noticed that teams sometimes have difficulty articulating their business ideas.
“To create a funnel of teams that benefit more from these larger accelerator programs, we have to give them little commercialization booster shots at an early stage, where they get nudged in the right direction to think about things like financials, customers and the market,” said Schoener, who was familiar with UML from his work with Mary Ann Picard, executive director for innovation and new ventures for the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2). During the COVID-19 pandemic, the two worked together on RADx, or the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, a National Institutes of Health initiative.
The Clean Green Challenge sponsors also included Focal Point, Kathleen Ralls LLC, Prime Plastic Products, Republic Services, MT&T Bank and Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union.