Needles. Bees. Dirt. Maple syrup. Energy bars. Garnishes.
Students at the West Virginia University LaunchLab are taking those elements and developing them into potential cash cows that could boost the medical, farming and food communities.
Their stories represent just a few of the entrepreneurial visions to rise from the three-year-old startup resource center.
THE NEEDLE AND THE DAMAGE (UN)DONE
You’re sitting in a doctor’s office and you know it’s coming.
Your heartbeat accelerates. Your muscles clench. Your palms sweat.
Finally, you see the needle. That slender, yet frightening pointed piece of metal piercing into your flesh.
Close your eyes and grimace.
It’s a whole other story for many children. That flu shot for your child costs more than just the co-pay. Kicking, crying and screaming — and a shade of embarrassment — are included in that transaction.
The way the healthcare profession administers vaccines and injections may soon change, as Reem Eldawud, a WVU chemical engineering PhD student, has a potential antidote for those needle nightmares.
The Jordan native designed a device called the “No View Needle Cover,” which conceals a syringe as it is inserted into a patient.
Since much of the fear is related to what we see, she thought why not try to disguise the needle somehow?
“I watched a YouTube video of a nurse trying to give a young girl a shot,” Eldawud said. “The girl was screaming and shouting. The nurse started singing to the girl in an attempt to distract her. Eventually, she stopped crying. The video was four or five minutes long. I thought, ‘This could be done in a much easier way.’”
Eldawud proposed using colorful covers with characters such as animals on them to divert a child. The design still allows the healthcare provider to monitor drawing blood or injecting vaccines.
Eldawud’s idea, which began as a homework assignment, is now on the verge of becoming a widely-used instrument in clinics and hospital settings, including WVU Medicine Children’s — thanks, in part, to the WVU LaunchLab.
Created in 2014, the LaunchLab serves as a startup resource hub for aspiring entrepreneurs. It’s a one-stop shop on campus for students to mold ideas into profit-churning game changers in the marketplace. That’s what it did for Eldawud.
“I had no clue as to how to launch a company,” Eldawud said. “Everything was new to me. Through the LaunchLab, I was given access to resources like software and 3-D printing. I was given access to experts in logo design and patents. It was a huge help in the development of my business.”
Her business is called Creative Health, a medical supply company that she hopes to expand beyond the needle cover. She’s anticipating her products to hit the market in June, just one month after she receives her PhD from WVU.
“Through the LaunchLab, I was given access to resources like software and 3-D printing. I was given access to experts in logo design and patents. It was a huge help in the development of my business.
LAUNCHING THE LAB
The origins of the LaunchLab begin with Matt Harbaugh. He’s one of those guys you’d expect to see on “Shark Tank.” Not as a contestant, but as a shark investor sitting among the likes of Mark Cuban and Daymond John.
For more than 15 years, Harbaugh has been an investor, adviser and leader of technology companies ranging from mobile apps and enterprise software to healthcare and energy. He spent a decade as a venture capitalist and was CEO of Mobile Technologies, a software company acquired by Facebook.
The LaunchLab was born shortly after Harbaugh’s arrival in August 2013.
“More and more students are interested in not just getting a job, but creating their own job,” said Harbaugh, associate vice president of transformation at WVU. “As a university, we needed to start providing them with more hands-on opportunities to test out their ideas and gain the skills and confidence needed to start their own business.”
Within two years, the LaunchLab has blossomed from a loosely structured one-man operation to a unit with employees and support scattered around campus that includes legal expertise from the College of Law and design assistance from the College of Creative Arts. Now the LaunchLab is in its new, sleek home at Evansdale Crossing.
And the LaunchLab, as Harbaugh and University officials have learned, is a unique calling card for WVU in the higher ed realm.
“More and more students are interested in not just getting a job, but creating their own job.”
“From my perspective, coming from outside the university environment, I always assumed these types of resources existed for students,” Harbaugh said. “What I now understand is that it’s quite unusual. It’s rare to find a hub like the LaunchLab, where all of the resources and expertise from across the University are combined into a single point of access for the benefit of our entrepreneurial students. The LaunchLab represents an area where WVU is out in front.”
From August 2014 to May 2015, nearly 400 students used the LaunchLab. Of those, approximately 40 are currently in the process of launching their own businesses.
LaunchLab students have also excelled in the West Virginia Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition, which allows students from around the state to pitch a business idea and receive the necessities to begin a viable startup company. The competition is hosted by the WVU College of Business and Economics BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In the 2015 competition, 15 of 15 finalists came through the LaunchLab.
IT’S A DIRTY JOB BUT SOMEONE’S GOTTA DO IT
Eldawud isn’t the only budding entrepreneur to emerge from the LaunchLab.
Meet Emily Wells, who grew up on a farm in Sistersville, W.Va. She had a concept completely different from Eldawud’s. It involves dirt.
“No one comes up to me and says, ‘I love dirt! Tell me more,’” said Wells, 22, a graduate student in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
Wells has literally clawed and scratched through dirt to launch her company — Precision Agriculture Sampling Services. The company uses newer technologies and software, called precision agricultural methodology, to accurately test soil and helps farmers and environmental companies with the best management practices for their land, while increasing soil and environmental health and saving farms money and resources.
Farmers test soil for nutrients and pH levels to ensure ideal crop growth. But sometimes they don’t have a method. Some use a soil sample from just one spot, although the earth from 10 feet away could contain contrasting characteristics. This can be inefficient and wasteful.
Wells divides the land into grids, or small sections. From there, she obtains a soil sample from each section to test separately. This way, she can determine if soil is, say, nitrogen deficient in one area, but abundant in another area. In that case, Wells would recommend her client to lay off the nitrogen fertilizer in the nitrogen-rich area of the farm.
“When you’re adding fertilizers where they’re not needed, it is a waste of time, a waste of money and it can degrade soil quality,” she said.
By spending a few hundred dollars on Wells’ services, a farmer could end up saving thousands in fertilizer and nitrogen costs.
Wells’ ingenuity caught the eye of those behind the LaunchLab, particularly its outgoing director Fonda Holehouse, also an associate professor in the Davis College who teaches courses on entrepreneurship.
“She’s an impressive young lady,” Holehouse said. “I remember the first time I saw her pitch. I always thought she was quiet, but it turns out that she was also a master at selling her entrepreneurial vision.”
Through the LaunchLab, Wells was able to connect with business experts and a graphic designer to help her form Precision Agriculture Sampling Services. And after a series of interviews and a 30-page business plan, Wells earned a first-place finish in the 2015 West Virginia Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition.
When Wells completes her master’s degree in May, she’ll relocate to West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle to set up shop for her consulting business, which she says is needed in this part of the U.S.
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at without the help of the LaunchLab,” Wells said. “Because of them, I get to stop and think, ‘Wow. I own a business.’”
”I wouldn’t be where I’m at without the help of the LaunchLab. Because of them, I get to stop and think, ‘Wow. I own a business.’”
Vermont, nicknamed the Green Mountain State, leads the U.S. in maple syrup production, accounting for roughly 41 percent of the country's total.
Another "Mountain State," however, should seize a more sizeable stake in the nation's maple syrup market, says Dylan Johnson , BS ’14, Agricultural and Extension Education, and current graduate student from Flatwoods, W.Va.
Maple trees – of the sugar and red varieties – are bountiful in West Virginia,
but their full potential is (literally) untapped, Johnson said.
A maple syrup production class taught by Jamie Schuler, an assistant professor in the Division of Forestry and Natural Resources, inspired Johnson to take action.
With assistance from the LaunchLab, Johnson established Vandalia Maple Works LLC with the lofty goal of making West Virginia a maple syrup mecca.
Johnson's business model is unique in that he hopes to lease maple trees from landowners in exchange for a piece of the profits generated from syrup sales.
Due to the limited season for syrup production – the ideal sap collection time is between late February and April – Johnson expects it may take him a few years before his business begins to flourish.
"It's a short season," Johnson said. "I'm still researching trees and areas to determine what's profitable."
Another perk to locally made maple syrup? The taste.
"You become a huge fan after realizing what you get at the stores aren't really maple syrup," Johnson said. "Most of them are made with flavored corn syrup. This is a natural product. It's untouched. Taking the sap out of the trees and turning it into a sweet, refined delicious product is what drives me."
WELCOME TO PLANET DENSITY
As a couple of 20-somethings on the go, Taylor Krivenki and Tommy Brown would find themselves hungry at school. And at work. And in the outdoors, where they most enjoy spending time.
They'd tried all sorts of "energy" and protein bars that claim to serve as replacement meals. None satisfied their hunger.
So the couple from Granville, Ohio, decided to concoct their own nutrient-dense
food products to fuel their workdays and adventurous lifestyles, and launched
Planet Density Foods.
"We wanted to create a nutritious, on-the-go food product that keeps you full," said Brown, a master's student in geography.
But Planet Density products aren't your average protein bars. They're shaped like half spheres and void of genetically modified organisms and sugary chemicals that tend to be more harmful than healthful. The spheres contain three main ingredients – coconut, sweet potato and sunflower seed butter. They also include chia seeds, hemp seeds and maple syrup. The two main flavors they're prototyping are lemon blueberry and double chocolate.
Because Tommy Brown made his own coconut milk, he had leftover coconut flakes, which led to the creation of the couple's first energy bar.
Throughout a day of whitewater rafting, Krivenki and Brown said they stay fulfilled on five of the spheres and water.
"It began as a fortunate accident," Brown said. "I make my own coconut milk and I ended up with leftover cups of coconut flakes. In the spirit of not wasting food, I combined the flakes with nut butter."
Krivenki, a chemistry doctoral student, perfected the formula with science and research. She even took to picking up knowledge from a research publication, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry .
"I investigated the processing methods and found out how to not waste nutrients," she said. "Then we saw it out in our own kitchen space."
Krivenki and Brown strive to incorporate all organic ingredients, which they try to obtain locally.
The couple is currently seeking manufacturing space with a goal of producing 5,000 pounds of product.
"We know from being busy in our own lives that it's difficult to stay focused and strong," Brown said. "With this, we have the power to create something to change lives."
SWEETENING THE POT
At 16 years old, Matthew Byrd, of rural Harrisville, W.Va., felt an urge to veer outside his comfort zone. He thought to himself, “Well, I’ve never branched out or done anything wild.”
His life changed when he took a beginner’s beekeeping class with the WVU Extension Service. By May 2014, he ordered his first three-pound package of bees.
Yes, you can mail order bees.
Despite the fact that bees spook Byrd’s mom, he forged ahead with his newfound hobby and set up beehives on the family property, surrounded by 20 fruit trees, including apple, orange, pear and peach, which gives his honey a stronger, sweeter taste than most of what you find in the big stores.
“Without the LaunchLab, I could not have gone into business as fast as I did.”
At first, he had a few bottles of honey. The next spring, he harvested 70 pounds of honey that he sold in clear, unmarked honey bear bottles to friends and local residents.
He thought raising bees would just be a hobby. That changed when he came to WVU to study wildlife and fisheries resources in fall 2015 and heard about the LaunchLab. His hobby is now a business — aptly named Byrds and Bees.
Byrd expanded his hive count from two to six — with plans to increase to 30 next year. His goal is to distribute up to 10,000 six-ounce bottles a year, with an eye on selling the product in specialty markets throughout West Virginia.
“I wasn’t very educated in business and how to operate and run a company,” Byrd said. “Working with Fonda and taking her classes really opened my mind. Without the LaunchLab, I could not have gone into business as fast as I did.”
TURNING GREENS INTO GREEN
Unless you’re a foodie or into sustainable dining, you’re probably unfamiliar with microgreens. Let Jordon Masters, BS ’15, Horticulture, from Ronceverte, W.Va., explain it to you.
“It’s the lingerie of food,” he said. “It’s the most expensive vegetable crop in today’s market. It adds art to a dish but also gives more texture and taste to food.”
Farm-to-table never sounded so sexy.
“You can snack on them,” Masters continued. “Most microgreens taste like beets, herbs, basil or cilantro. Some have a sweet, nutty flavor. You can prepare them or take them out of the bag and eat them raw.”
Masters is the CEO and lead horticulturist of Allegheny Genesis, a startup agribusiness dedicated to microgreens and alternative crops. He, too, is a Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition winner.
A fifth-generation farmer, Masters was introduced to the world of microgreens by his brother, Jared, a local chef. The brothers created a blog, called Allegheny Genesis, to raise awareness about sustainable food and creative, gourmet dishes.
The blog led them to growing their own microgreens and selling them. At WVU, Masters dedicated the rest of his undergraduate studies to researching microgreens. His graduate thesis focused on standardization in microgreens, defining stages of morphology in microgreens for harvest maturity.
“The LaunchLab took what I had — a small idea to sell microgreens — and fine-tuned it,” Masters said. “That’s what they’re all about — taking an idea and turning it into a profitable business. They helped me find potential investors for my company.”
Now Masters is working on building his own greenhouse in Westover to fuel production of his microgreens.
“The most popular trends start in high-end restaurants and work their way down to the general public,” Masters said. “That’s what I hope to do with microgreens.”
“The LaunchLab took what I had — a small idea to sell microgreens — and fine-tuned it.”
SHAPING THE STATE, SHAPING THE FUTURE
In the coming years, the LaunchLab, like these businesses, is only going to grow.
Three aspects of the LaunchLab make it stand out from similar programs at other universities. It’s a freestanding department. It brings together key resources from across campus, such as the Student Intellectual Property Patent Services in the College of Law that helps students obtain patents. And LaunchLab partners with the West Virginia Small Business Development Center, so that entrepreneurial students can continue to receive support and guidance, even after they graduate.
Because it’s a freestanding department, LaunchLab welcomes students from a potpourri of studies from engineering to business to agriculture to music. Even students who’ve never taken a business class come out of the LaunchLab with the expertise to market their products or set up limited liability companies, aspects not necessarily taught in their respective fields, said David Ramsburg, assistant director of the LaunchLab and business coach at the West Virginia Small Business Development Center.
Not every idea he hears is a pearl. And many dreams disintegrate if a concept is already on the market or trademarked. But that is not the be-all, end-all to creative ingenuity, he said.
“Failure is not bad,” Ramsburg said. “So we continue to encourage them. They’re thinking the right things, and they’re thinking about problems and solutions. If you make progress while trying to change or create something, that is not a failure.
“You can always learn from it and apply it to the next idea.”