Team pitching hemp crop row covers to replace plastic wins Ag Springboard

Lisa Duchene
June 18, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A pair of recent Penn State graduates planning to manufacture and sell crop row covers made of hemp fiber — instead of the typical plastic — won $7,500 toward their venture in the College of Agricultural Sciences’ 2021 Ag Springboard student business pitch contest.

Louis Waryanka and Sam Hackman competed as Irwin Innovation Group. They pitched their plan to produce and sell a row cover made of biodegradable fiber from hemp that sequesters carbon as it grows, helping to solve the problem of 11 billion square feet of damaged plastic row covers annually discarded by vegetable growers.

Waryanka majored in agricultural science and earned a double minor in agribusiness management and in entrepreneurship and innovation (with a food and bio-innovation focus). Hackman majored in agribusiness management with a minor in entrepreneurship and innovation (with a focus in new ventures).

Hackman said he was “amazed at the progress” he and Waryanka made as they worked to polish their pitch through the course of the competition.

The team’s next step is to continue perfecting the recipe and bonding process to make a hemp-fiber material through which air, water and light can pass so it is suitable for the row cover application, Waryanka said.

Waryanka noted that the win was especially gratifying as the 2021 competition marked his third year competing in Ag Springboard. Two years ago, his team did not make it past the first round, and last year, his team made it to the final round but did not place.

 
Ag Springboard 2021 - hemp fiber

A closeup of hemp fiber as it’s pulled from the stalk. Crop row covers made from hemp could reduce some of the 11 billion square feet of damaged plastic row covers that vegetable growers discard each year.

IMAGE: Courtesy of College of Ag Sciences Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program
 

Compost Fertilizer from Biogas Co-Products

A pair of graduate students, Ram Neupane and Divya Pant, competing as “Carbon Compost,” won second place and $2,500 for their pitch to produce a compost fertilizer made from biogas co-products. Pant is a second-year master’s degree student in agronomy, and Neupane is a first-year doctoral candidate in plant pathology.

Following the announcement of the winners, Pant said it felt like the team’s hard work on its pitch showed and paid off. The Ag Springboard competition was a great learning experience, Neupane said.

Pant said her vision is to create a product that turns waste into resources and improves soil health to foster plant growth and sequester carbon.

The team’s pilot project began in mid-May with significant help from Reinford Farms, of Mifflintown, owned by Brett Reinford, to acquire raw materials. The operation annually processes 15,000 tons of food waste and 3.5 million gallons of manure to generate green energy equivalent to the energy needs of 500 households.

In the pilot project, the Carbon Compost team plans to use 100 kilograms of food waste and manure to make fertilizer using the vermicomposting process.

 
Ag Springboard 2021 - Divya Pant and Brett Reinford

Agronomy master's degree student Divya Pant, left, is working with Brett Reinford, a Mifflintown farmer, on a pilot project to process food and manure waste for carbon compost. Pant's team won the second place award of $2,500 in the Ag Springboard business pitch competition.

IMAGE: Courtesy of the College of Ag Sciences Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program
 

Ag Springboard Competition

During Ag Springboard, student teams pitch new business or nonprofit ventures tackling challenges in food, agriculture, biorenewable materials, community development and sustainability. Five finalist teams live-pitched judges via Zoom in April.

“The heart of it is seeing you all develop your entrepreneurial skills and your abilities to identify an idea, vet it and build it out to potentially be a viable business,” Mark Gagnon, associate teaching professor of agribusiness and the Harbaugh Entrepreneur and Innovation Faculty Scholar in the College of Agricultural Sciences, told the students.

“Entrepreneurship is about iteration and taking the information you can gather from your customers — and from people who can help finance your business and the people who support you getting to the marketplace — and ultimately get better,” added Gagnon, who coordinates the business pitch contest. “It’s a joy to see the students take initiative, to see you all build on your ideas.”

Since the launch of the competition in 2011, 436 students have competed, and Ag Springboard teams have gone on to form nine startup companies and nonprofit organizations.

Bill Donley, chair of the college's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program advisory board and a finalist judge, urged the students who did not win to keep working and “keep digging.”

“This year was one of those years when it was difficult to pick a winner because everyone did a great job,” said Donley, who retired after 31 years in senior management, with extensive experience in global materials and services businesses.

Other Ag Springboard teams competing in the finals were Table Rock Markets, comprised of students Jake Grim, Louis Gattis, Sabrina Yushinski, Donald Opp and Aiden Rauscher, who pitched an interactive exchange that connects local farmers with consumers; Bombay Farms, comprised of students Vraj Chopre and Rytzl Dsouza, whose idea is a platform to connect Indian farmers to global markets; and Traceless Foods, comprised of students Dylan Kapadia and Leif Barron, whose venture is a food delivery service designed to reduce food packing.

Finalist judges also included Linsey Herman, vice president of product development for Factory LLC, a food, beverage and pet product investor and accelerator in Bethlehem; Abby Lyall, vice president at Big Idea Ventures, which invests in companies creating plant-based and cell-based alternatives to meat, dairy and seafood products, and in companies solving problems related to food waste, plastic waste, water use and greenhouse gas emissions in food and agriculture; Maria Spencer, the John and Patty Warehime Entrepreneur-in-Residence in the College of Agricultural Sciences; and Dan Azzara, Alan R. Warehime Professor of Food and Agribusiness and the director of the college's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program.

The Ag Springboard competition is supported by Dan and Wendy Azzara, Earl and Kay Harbaugh, and the College of Agricultural Sciences.

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Last Updated June 18, 2021