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Rensselaer Graduates Win Top Environmental Prize In Oxford University Business Plan Competition

December 5, 2007

Rensselaer Graduates Win Top Environmental Prize In Oxford University Business Plan Competition

21st Century Challenge Competition designed to encourage sustainable new business ventures

Troy, N.Y. — Ecovative Design LLC, a company started by two recent graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was recently awarded £10,000 (approximately $20,500) as a winner of the 21st Century Challenge Competition. Hosted by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, the international business plan competition challenged participants to develop innovative, sustainable new business ventures that will help solve the major social and environmental challenges of the 21st century. 

Ecovative Design LLC, which is now located in the Rensselaer Incubator Center, was formed by recent Rensselaer graduates Eben Bayer ’07 and Gavin McIntyre ’07. The company won the competition’s “Tomorrow’s Planet” category for its development of environmentally friendly organic insulation. Made from waste agricultural materials, water, and mushrooms, the organic insulation could replace the traditional foam insulations in homes, which require petroleum for production and are not biodegradable.

Participants were required to submit a five-page business plan focusing on one of three challenge categories that included: “Tomorrow’s Planet,” focused on environmental challenges; “Tomorrow’s People,” concentrated on healthcare and medical challenges; and “Tomorrow’s Wealth,” centered on challenges of social inequality and the distribution of wealth. First-round judges scored each entry and reduced the field to nine finalists — three per category. 

The nine finalists presented their business plans to a panel of judges that included representatives from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the Financial Times, and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) — the largest single endowment devoted exclusively to supporting talent, innovation, and creativity in the UK.

An overall competition winner received £35,000. Winners of each challenge category received £10,000. Open to all for-profit, commercial ventures that have received less than £250,000 (roughly $515,775) in funding, the competition received more than 180 entries from 23 countries. 

The insulation, called Greensulate™, is created by pouring a mixture of insulating particles and nutrients into a panel enclosure, and injecting it with mushroom cells that digest the nutrients and produce a tightly meshed network of insulating particles and mycelium. The result is an organic composite board that has a competitive R-Value — a measurement of resistance to heat flow — and can serve as a firewall.

The organic idea was born during a class Bayer took called Inventor’s Studio, where students were challenged to create sustainable housing. Bayer was tasked with improving the insulation of a conventional home.  

“Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre are outstanding examples of the innovative and forward-thinking students that Rensselaer educates,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “Recognition of their environmentally friendly organic insulation — which has implications in the areas of green building, energy efficiency, and sustainability — as one of the best inventions in this international competition affirms that these recent graduates have what it takes to make a difference on the global scale.” 

“What Eben and Gavin are doing with organic insulation has the potential to represent a truly disruptive technology,” said Burt Swersey, a lecturer in Rensselaer’s department of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering, and Bayer’s teacher in Inventor’s Studio. “I applaud them for their vision and their passion to use technology to create significant value for all. Organic insulation holds the promise of creating a win-win-win situation: better insulation that saves energy, at a lower cost, and in harmony with the environment.” 

Last year, the organic insulation was the winning entry in Rensselaer’s “Change the World Challenge” idea competition, which awards $1,000 for viable ideas that make the world a better place. Bayer was also a finalist in the Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize competition, the prestigious award given to a senior or graduate student who applies technology in a new way. 

Ecovative Design LLC also recently won first place at the Innovation Showcase competition sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in collaboration with the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) and Idea to Product (I2P) competitions.

Bayer and McIntyre both graduated with dual degrees in mechanical engineering and product, design, and innovation (PDI). A studio-based degree program, PDI melds the technical sophistication of design and engineering disciplines with the social and cultural aspects found in an arts and humanities education to produce graduates not only equipped to design innovative products, services, and systems — but who can apply their talents toward addressing the social and environmental needs of the 21st century.

Video of Eben Bayer ’07 and Gavin McIntyre ’07 delivering their presentations at Oxford University.

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About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,600 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.