Students find success as entrepreneurs after REEF program
At its core, the Ratcliffe Environmental Entrepreneur Fellowship is about giving graduate students options they never thought they had.
The REEF program at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology uses mentors and classroom lessons to teach science students how to think like business men and women.
Usually, the final product pitch marks the end of the year-long program, but even after just one year, something unexpected happened. Participating students were carrying the ideas they developed in REEF to outside pitch competitions. In the program’s four years, five of those ideas have been developed into real companies and this year alone, five students have won funding ranging from $1,000 to $25,000 for their companies.
“This is the next level,” said Nick Hammond, REEF Program Director and Associate Vice President of Innovation and Economic Development at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “They’re taking what they learned in REEF and entering competitions to go beyond it. It’s nice to see them out there getting input and doing well.”
The REEF program has supported 21 students over the past four years. For eight weekends, students come IMET in Baltimore to learn from experts in the field. Lessons cover intellectual property, regulatory issues, marketing, manufacturing, budgeting and how to determine if an idea is commercially viable, financially feasible, and meaningful to society.
At the end of the program, the participating students pitch their business plan to a panel of local investors who serve as judges. Paul Silber, founding principal at Vienna-based Blu Venture Investors, has heard every pitch as a REEF judge from the beginning.
“It is no easy feat to prepare and deliver a 7-minute pitch to seasoned business people, but every one of the students succeeded in doing so,” he said.
The panel of judges would evaluate the quality of the CEO, specifically trying to assess their intelligence, creativity and technical prowess, and understanding of the market they would work within, Silber said. Students often show signs of many early-stage entrepreneurs, in that they lacked knowledge of essential business basics, such as how to identify customers and sell to them, he said.
“It is remarkable to see how the quality of the business plan presentations has evolved and progressed from year-to-year. This is a clear indication of how the REEF program is getting stronger over time,” Silber said. “I was exceptionally impressed by the enthusiastic presentations that I saw this year.”
Suzan Shahrestani, a graduate student at UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, started pitching her program idea, Minnowtech, to outside investors before she had even completed her first year in the REEF program.
Minnowtech is an application and phone attachment that, with the snap of a photo, will help anglers instantly measure and log their catch. Fish catch information will be shared with fisheries managers to improve assessments of fish populations and regulations.
Shahrestani and her partners won $25,000 from Accelerate Baltimore, a 13-week technology-focused program that offers funding, support and guidance for start-up companies. They had to compete against roughly 130 applicants for a chance to pitch Minnowtech for the funding. Her group will compete against the top 7 on June 19 with another pitch for a chance to win $100,000.
“I had this business idea that I’m really excited about. Just because I think it’s good doesn’t mean the world will think it’s good,” she said. “Getting into the Accelerate Baltimore program was a validation point for me. Other people like the idea and other people not only like it, but they’re willing to give you money for it. That’s pretty cool.”
Mary Larkin, an IMET/University of Maryland, Baltimore student, wanted her business to focus on the horseshoe crab because their commercially valuable blood helps test the safety of several biomedical products, including vaccines.
By the end of her time in the REEF program, she knew she wanted to keep developing the company she envisioned, Blueblood. Larkin and her partners, Jill Arnold and Brent Whitaker, recently won $20,000 participating in the Shore Hatchery Entrepreneurship Competition at Salisbury University.
Larkin felt REEF helped her perfect her pitch. Every month in the program, the students would practice talking about their business concepts in front of their fellow students, guest speakers, and Nick Hammond, she said.
“And every month that process got easier,” she said. “The mock pitch presentations at the end of the year were good preparation for real pitch competitions.”
Going forward, Larkin hopes the company can secure funding through other sources to conduct research that will allow her and her partners to grow their business.
Two of the students who won a spot in REEF’s top 3 this year have also had success since the program ended. Miranda Marvel, who developed Sensor Fish during REEF, won third place and $1,000 in the Cangialosi Business Innovation Competition at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Kelsey Abernathy and fellow IMET student Dan Fucich won $1,000 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) Grid Pitch for their startup, Urban Algae.
Marvel, an IMET/UMBC graduate student, appreciated hearing more positive feedback for her product. Sensor Fish is a diagnostic tool that uses colors to signify different stressors that might be affecting fish in home aquariums or pet stores tanks.
“Having encouragement and support from the entrepreneurship program at UMBC has given me the confidence to go ahead with more pitch competitions and try to hone my idea and begin to think about making a prototype and taking my business to the next step,” she said.
The funding she received will help her obtain lab supplies and materials to start conducting research and development so she can eventually create a product prototype. After a six-month review of her progress, she has a chance to win another $2,000, through the UMBC competition.
Once she has a prototype, Marvel said she will start looking for more investors and grant money to go forward with the company.
Abernathy, an IMET/UMB graduate student, stood out in the REEF program for pitching a rapid disease diagnostic test for aquaculture that uses the molecules found on cell surfaces that naturally act as detectors of viruses and bacteria.
With Fucich, an IMET/UMCES graduate student, Abernathy pitched Urban Algae, a biotech start up aimed at providing the public with a source of toxin-free algae for dietary supplements all while revitalizing urban spaces by retrofitting them with microalgal green roofs.
The team was thrilled to take their idea to the Grid Pitch finals and found a lot of encouragement and helpful feedback along the way.
“This competition is a bit of a crash-course of REEF, focusing primarily on the pitching element,” Fucich said. “They offered several information sessions and instructional seminars that participants could attend but the main element was the assigned mentor.”
They worked with the mentor for weeks leading up to the competition to gain feedback on their pitch’s format and content. With its own mentoring, REEF proved to be the ideal preparation for this competition.
“Pitching a company is very different from giving a scientific talk,” Abernathy said. “The REEF program did a great job teaching us the basics of a good pitch and required us to practice giving pitches to a variety of audiences. Over time, this built up our confidence and inspired us to try our skills outside of the REEF environment by entering a pitch competition.”
Abernathy and Fucich plan to enter more pitch competitions and submit applications for grants. This summer, they hope to do a pilot study and begin to prototype their bioreactor.
That students are finding success beyond the REEF program tells Hammond two things: one, that the program offers effective training, and two, that graduate students are willing and able to turn their training into businesses.
“Graduate students are a good source for leading innovation out of universities, and REEF is a small representation of Maryland’s graduate students,” he said. “We should be trying it everywhere.”