Penn State students and others innovating their way to national acclaim

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 25, 2013 

— Small-scale farmers in East Africa must brave stubborn land, an unforgiving climate and pests as they try to bring food to market – and, hopefully, escape poverty.

But with a simple greenhouse cobbled together with plastic sheets and pipes, life could be very different, in the opinion of a group of Penn State University students who have invented such a design.

The students displayed a model of their structure in the Smithsonian Museum of American History last week during the Open Minds 2013 conference, an annual technology showcase held by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

In the museum’s atrium Saturday, each student team stood alongside model prototypes of the works they’ve crafted specifically to improve peoples’ lives. A group from Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va., for example, showcased a computer program that can decipher how others are feeling based on the sound of their voice and other social cues. The program is designed to help people with autism.

Showcase participants must take a comprehensive approach with their invention, said Arianna De Reus, a sophomore from Penn State’s affordable greenhouse team. The team is run through the school’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program.

Two people can assemble the low-maintenance, durable greenhouse structure in two days, she said. The greenhouses retail for about $550 and are easily expandable so farmers can grow their business.

“A lot of organizations and NGOs – they just donate these kind of technologies,” said De Reus, from Hollidaysburg, Pa. “But if we partner with for-profit entities that create sustainability in the business model, we can just keep going and have a social impact."

NGO is a term for a nonprofit, voluntary non-governmental organization.

The Penn State program had students interview farmers and conduct field-testing where products would be sold — from Kenya and Rwanda to Madagascar. They also identity for-profit manufactures and banks willing to help get the venture “beyond the dusty prototype on the shelf,” said Jennifer Keller Jackson, a grants manager with the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

After four years of work, Penn State’s affordable greenhouses are now being mass manufactured and sold in Kenya by the company, Mavuuno Greenhouses, De Reus said. The program also licensed its invention in Rwanda and is in the early exploration stage in five more countries, including Guatemala and Vietnam.

The journey hasn’t been without its challenges, said De Reus, who traveled to Kenya with the group last semester. For example, she learned Rwanda would pose a special challenge as soon as she crossed the border.

In line with the country’s strict anti-pollution laws, customs officers checked their belongings and confiscated every plastic bag, De Reus said with a laugh.

“That became an issue with finding plastic for the greenhouses because only certain companies have the right to import that type of plastic,” she said. Many group members view those bumps in the road as opportunities. For example, Penn State senior Shayne Bement from Palmyra, Pa., is researching how to incorporate old rice bags into the greenhouse to bring costs down about $70 per unit.

“It’s totally taken over my life – and no complaints,” said Bement, who is traveling to Kenya for the first time this summer. “With this, it’s a new challenge every day. Every day, you go into the office it’ll be something different. You never know who’s going to call, what country they’re going to be from.”

While many people at Saturday’s conference were museum-goers, several venture capitalists came ready with tougher questions. Bement said he was prepared to meet their criticisms, and they weren’t able to poke holes in the team’s design or business plan.

In addition to showing their prototypes for the first time, several teams were able to win additional grants from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. Oklahoma State University’s MaxQ LLC venture won $1,500 for best video submission about its temperature-sensitive containers for shipping vaccines; and the emotion-reading technology by Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va., won a "People’s Choice" award of $1,520.

Mayank Mahajan, a Thomas Jefferson High School senior, said it was gratifying to see people invest in his group’s research.

“I’m surprised that so many people had so much faith in us,” Mahajan said. “This project really has the potential to not only work but it’s going to thrive once it actually enters the real market.”

Though only two groups won awards last weekend, all participating collegiate groups had already received grants of about $20,000 each, Keller Jackson said.

Email: rlurye@mcclatchydc.com

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