GreenBriq student venture wins top $7,500 prize in Ag Springboard pitch contest

Lisa Duchene
April 12, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — GreenBriq, a student venture aimed at turning the biomass of invasive water hyacinth plants into affordable fuel briquettes for Kenyan families, recently won the $7,500 first-place prize in the Ag Springboard pitch contest.

The competition, the eighth held since 2011, is a signature event of the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, which teaches and nurtures an entrepreneurial mindset for student success across majors and career paths. Each student team must have at least one member enrolled in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Ag Springboard gives students real-life experience in developing and pitching a venture. Four finalist teams live-pitched a panel of judges, and winners were announced at an evening awards banquet that featured keynote speaker Tyler Smith, who played on Penn State’s 2001 “Sweet 16” men’s basketball team, played professionally around the world for 11 years, and now is an author and local entrepreneur.

Mark Gagnon, the college's entrepreneurship coordinator and Harbaugh Entrepreneurship Scholar, noted that Ag Springboard provides students with an opportunity to develop and communicate their venture ideas.

“During the process, students grow professionally through interaction with peers, faculty and our alumni judges,” he said. “Ag Springboard provides essential experiential learning that ultimately helps our students be more prepared for career success.”

The winning GreenBriq team consisted of Paul Hughes, a senior mechanical engineering major; Annaliese Long, a senior biological engineering major; Nicole Dato, a senior civil engineering major; and Vatsal Agarwal, a junior material science and engineering major.

After winning the competition and cash prize, Agarwal said the next step is to make more charcoal briquettes and keep refining the process. Hughes added that the team will continue working on product development and will conduct additional research and development this summer to establish the venture’s viability and “proof of concept.” Dato and Hughes will return to Kenya this summer for further research.

The students started working on the idea about 18 months ago, when tasked with finding engineering solutions to humanitarian problems, as part of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program at Penn State.

GreenBriq’s goal is for its briquettes to solve a few problems at once. In the last few years, the price of daily charcoal for a Kenyan family rose to become 50 percent of a household’s daily income — so there is a great need for affordable, sustainable cooking fuel, the team told judges during its live pitch.

Also, for decades, Kenya and its neighbors, Uganda and Tanzania, which share the Lake Victoria basin, have battled the invasive water hyacinth that is choking parts of the world’s largest tropical lake.

The plant proliferates, doubling its growth in two weeks. It is one symptom of agricultural runoff and raw sewage draining into the degraded lake. Fishermen have trouble reaching their boats amidst the vegetation and have seen their catches plummet. They cut the plant away with machetes.

GreenBriq’s plan is to partner with fishermen to harvest the water hyacinth and use a five-step process to turn the plant material into briquettes. Customers would be Kenyan fuel brokers. The team’s initial research indicates Kenyan brokers would welcome a reliable supply of briquettes after a period of shortages, the team said during its pitch.

End-consumers would be women and restaurants. The GreenBriq “charcoal” briquettes are compatible with existing biogas stoves found in many households and burn at proper rates for cooking. Some fuel alternatives heat too high and fast, are difficult to control, and burn traditional foods, the team explained.

Other ventures are making charcoal briquettes out of waste, but no one is doing it with water hyacinth, the team told judges. 

The second-place winner of $2,500 was Inakua, a student venture to rent water-efficient hydroponic growing towers to Kenyan families so they can reliably grow their own vegetables. Team Inakua is addressing the fact that 18.6 million people in Kenya do not have a stable supply of food, due in part to sporadic rain patterns.

“We’re going to get it done and try to help as many people as possible while building a company,” said Inakua team member Jessica Novis, an industrial engineering major. They’ll keep working, said Inakua teammate and electrical engineering major Zaid Hmoud, and use the prize money to test Inakua’s customer service model. Novis and Hmoud also participate in the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship program.

Perry Lehrhoff, an agribusiness management major, also is part of the Inakua team.

The Inakua business plan is to rent hydroponic growing towers — in which nutrient-rich water is pumped in and trickles over the plant roots — along with seedlings and nutrients. The setup can yield 450 pounds of vegetables for a family of five. The team’s goal is to empower families to secure and grow their own food source. 

Inakua’s vision is to build a network of greenhouses in Kenya to serve a community of 2,500 households in a 28-mile radius. Each greenhouse would grow the proper seedlings and store equipment to service the towers in that community. In time, Inakua envisions serving 3.4 million people.

The team, which has been working on the concept since January 2018, traveled to Kenya last summer for research. One Kenyan man who has tested the setup grew enough vegetables so that the family had an excess of crops that it could trade with neighbors for other varieties of produce — and was no longer struggling to find and purchase enough vegetables.

Two other finalist teams — Food Renewed and Nuglys — also live-pitched final-round judges.

Team Food Renewed pitched an anaerobic digester that would enable restaurants to convert their food waste into cooking fuel and help reduce the 1.3 billion tons of food — about one-third of what’s produced globally for human consumption — that’s wasted every year. That team included Whitney Ashead, an agricultural science major; Haley Stauffer, a biorenewable systems major; Steph Herbstritt, a doctoral student in agricultural and biological engineering; and Isa Amador-Diaz, a master's degree student in agricultural and biological engineering.

Team Nuglys developed fruit and vegetable-based cookies made with ugly fruits and vegetables — meaning misshapen and discolored — sourced locally. The team's vision is to provide local farmers with a fair price for difficult-to-sell produce and make a profit on a unique cookie. Team members are Laura Greaves and Jon Colwell, agribusiness management majors, and Navjit Singh, a finance major.

Ag Springboard final round judges were Anne Yorks, owner of Flour Box Bakery; Weslie Khoo, owner of Bold Foods, whose team Cricket Pasta won Ag Springboard in 2017; Bill Donley, former CEO and president of Tangent Corp. and chairman of the college's Entrepreneurship & Innovation advisory board; and Alan R. Warehime Professor of Agribusiness Dan Azzara, the college's director of entrepreneurship and innovation and former senior vice president for global research and development for The Hershey Company.  

More information about Ag Springboard, 2019 keynote speaker Tyler Smith, and the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program is available at the program's website.

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Last Updated April 12, 2019