Celebrating the 2020 REEF Class
Since September 2019, students at IMET and UMCES have dedicated one Friday and Saturday each month to learning about business plans, customer discovery, intellectual property, and many other topics vital to starting and building a business. On top of research and coursework, they have developed a new business idea throughout the year as part of the Ratcliffe Environmental Entrepreneur Fellowship (REEF) program. Students’ hard work culminated in the final pitch competition in April to a panel that includes experienced investors that have assessed many new ideas, and taken some of them to market. Every single REEF student pitch impressed the judges, who noted how effectively students communicated how they would bring their ideas to the marketplace.
Two students won awards for their pitches. Lauren Jonas, a student at IMET, won the award for Most Viable Product for her company Probeeotic. Lauren convinced the judges that her idea to produce a probiotic spray for beehives would help combat a global decline in bee populations by strengthening their immune systems. She also demonstrated that the product could sell well to farmers looking to increase their crop yields. Since bee pollination is vital to fruit and vegetable production, a product that could increase bee populations would be valued by any farming operation – in other words, there is potentially a huge market for Probeeotic.
Lauren drew on lessons from REEF guest speakers on customer discovery in order to develop her idea and prove its viability. She said “The more people that you speak with, the more you get to know your customer base and the issues that they face on a daily basis. This can help you pivot your idea into a more specific direction or confirm that your product has the potential to help solve a problem!”
Morgan Ross, a student at Horn Point Laboratory, won the award for best presentation with her pitch for a wearable toxin sensor to detect brevetoxin aerosols. Brevetoxins are produced by a harmful algal bloom known as the red tide and can have negative human health effects. Morgan’s innovation would help beachgoers protect themselves by providing real-time information on the safety of the air and water.
While the judges had to pick two winners for the competition, their jobs were made hard by the quality of the pitches presented by each student. Like Morgan, IMET student Taylor Armstrong focused on harmful algal blooms. She presented an idea to use spent barley grain from breweries to inhibit blooms from occurring in the first place. This is closely tied to her doctoral research and through REEF, she was able to think about broader applications of her work. Sakura Tanaka, an IMET student, presented her idea for a new type of fish feed that would reduce the “fishy” smell of land-based aquaculture and modify the taste of fish to make it more appealing to kids. This could help expand the market for seafood and improve kids’ health by providing a healthy source of protein and nutrients crucial for healthy neural development.
IMET’s Executive Director, Dr. Russell Hill, said, “I’ve had the privilege of attending the final pitch day for REEF for the past several years and I’m always impressed by the students’ business ideas and communication skills. The presentations this year were truly exceptional.” Dr. Nina Lamba, IMET’s Assistant Director, is a big part of getting the students to that stage. She directs the program, providing one-on-one guidance to students, structuring the curriculum to give students all the skills they need, and arranging for guest speakers to share their expertise. She said, “The growth these students show throughout the year is remarkable. We provide the tools, but it is up to them to build a business plan and convince us it will work. I’m very proud of our REEF students for rising to the challenge. And best of all, they have fun doing it.”
In concluding their pitches, each student thanked the Ratcliffe Foundation for the support that has made this program possible. Lauren Jonas emphasized the impact that Ratcliffe Foundation has had on her professional development. She said, “I’ve been in the REEF program for two years now and I can assuredly say that it has changed my life in really great ways and it has taught me skills that I never would have learned otherwise.”