AlgenAir wins big at three pitch competitions
AlgenAir, a company started by two IMET Ph.D. students, brought home over $50,000 from three business plan competitions in the past few months. In presentations as short as one minute, AlgenAir founders Kelsey Abernathy and Dan Fucich convinced panels of judges that they have developed a valuable product and a viable business plan. AlgenAir’s slogan is, “Grow Algae. Live Better.” They have developed the first air purifier to use algae to reduce indoor CO2 levels. This small, table-top device called the aerium can clean the air as efficiently as 25 houseplants.
Kelsey and Dan quickly adapted their pitch to be given online, a new experience for them. In April, they received second place at the University of Maryland’s Pitch Dingman Competition, securing $7,500 for future business development. Through this program, they were also mentored by Phil Masiello, who founded a digital marketing company called CrunchGrowth. This was a great match for AlgenAir, as they are increasingly focused on advertising the aerium to grow sales.
In May, the pair were awarded $25,000 as the second place winners at the Heartland Challenge Competition. In June, they won the NASA Space Exploration Innovation Award at the Rice Business Plan Competition, receiving an additional $25,000 for AlgenAir. These funds come at a great time for these future PhDs. Both Kelsey and Dan plan to defend their dissertations in the coming months and start working on AlgenAir full-time. Dan said, “For the past few years, we’ve been able to accomplish a lot, but we’re still balancing our education, so we can only devote so much time to our business.” Starting in early 2021, they will have more time and more funding to grow AlgenAir.
Kelsey and Dan already have along to-do list for when they are full-time entrepreneurs. They want to refine the design of the aerium, market it online, and do controlled studies to track its impact on CO2 levels. They have already started working on the last item, with a new partnership with The Hotel at the University of Maryland College Park. They will be placing aeriums in several hotel rooms, monitoring CO2 over time and collecting customer feedback from hotel guests. Hotel air quality tends to be especially poor and so this could be a great market for their product. Looking far into the future, Kelsey and Dan envision large-scale algae air filtration systems being built into the walls or roofs of buildings like hotels to improve indoor air quality.
The two Ph.D. students developed the idea for this business based on their scientific understanding of algae and their training in business skills through the Ratcliffe Environmental Entrepreneurship Fellowship (REEF) at IMET. Kelsey said, “When I joined [REEF], I had no idea about business and no real interest, but REEF changed all that. Research in academia is incredibly important, but your end product is typically a paper. In the startup world, your end product is something you get to build and see the impact of.” Kelsey was drawn to the feeling of creating something of value to others and worked with Dan to launch AlgenAir.
Dr. Nick Hammond directed REEF when Dan and Kelsey were students in the program. They have remained in touch with him, as well as other REEF mentors, like Ken Malone of Early Charm Ventures. They have also received assistance from Dr. Nina Lamba, the Assistant Director of IMET and director of the REEF program since March 2019. Dr. Lamba assisted them in becoming part of IMET’s startup incubator, Harbor Launch, and finding opportunities for funding and professional development. She said, “It has been wonderful to see AlgenAir win big prizes at prestigious competitions. I am excited to see AlgenAir bloom in the coming years with these funds.”