the fuel to create and innovate

When Shivani Garg (above) began her graduate program in biochemistry at Iowa State University, she never expected that before adding “Ph.D.” after her name, she’d put another designation there: president of her own company, OmegaChea Biorenewables LLC.

“When I started my research, I didn’t envision founding a company,” Garg said. “I was just hoping to have an application somewhere down the line. It happened that we could get closer to commercialization now.”

Peter Keeling says there is much more to Garg’s success than happenstance. Keeling oversees the BioBased Foundry in the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals. The BioBased Foundry develops entrepreneurs at Iowa State – particularly graduate students like Garg, who are “technically very deep in insights, but may lack the skill to translate their research insights into innovations that can be commercialized,” he explained.

Today, Garg is as versed in OmegaChea’s business strategy as the research it’s based on. Her work is focused on developing a bio-based raw material that could potentially replace petroleum-based chemicals in products like household detergents, motor oil and polyesters, making them better performing and more environmentally friendly, to boot.

Garg is among a growing number of undergraduate and graduate student-entrepreneurs who illustrate the effectiveness of this new process for funneling knowledge discovered at Iowa State into the commercial pipeline. The model concentrates on creating an innovative environment in which both students and faculty are actively engaged in determining whether a business use exists for their research and ideas.

There is also a cultural factor involved in getting faculty and students to engage in entrepreneurial innovation, especially for current and upcoming Iowa State students. These students want more from their educational experience; they seek to join with others with diverse backgrounds to explore how best to serve the greater good.

College of Design Dean Luis Rico-Gutierrez terms this social entrepreneurism. “In times of dwindling resources, how can we come together to solve problems?” he said. “This is a characteristic of the new generation of entrepreneurs – they are driven to solve big societal problems.” And with Iowa State’s environment of cross-disciplinary collaboration, he says, “the sky’s the limit” in what students and faculty can accomplish.

Keeling agreed. “If you can get an entrepreneurial, innovative culture going, students talk about it to others, who then want to know how they can get involved.”

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