REEF program exposes students to business side of science

July 25, 2017
The 2016-17 class of the REEF program culminated the year with a celebration at IMET.

Ryan Powell had an inkling early on that he could start his own business.

As a graduate student at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, he developed technology for harvesting algae, an achievement that not only resolved a long-standing problem in making algal biofuels, but also gave him the foundation for his future company.

“What I didn’t want to happen was to develop this technology, publish a paper, and then just hope somebody would pick it up and do something useful with it,” Powell said. “I really wanted to see this technology do good in the world.”

There was just one problem: Turning his scientific success story into full-fledged business wasn’t part of his graduate school training.

Then Powell participated in the Ratcliffe Environmental Entrepreneurs Fellowship (REEF) program at UMCES’ Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET). With the lessons he learned from REEF, he built the business he runs today, Manta Biofuel. The Baltimore-based company grows and harvests algae to produce a renewable and carbon neutral crude oil that could be used in jets, trucks, and cars.

Every year, IMET hosts the REEF program to teach a select group of students how to think about science with a business perspective. Over the course of a year, participating graduate students will create and develop a business model based on scientific research.

One in 10 graduate students today will find themselves on the tenure track, which means they’re not trained for anything else. They need to understand how to communicate their research outside the academic environment. This just enables their career no matter what direction it may go.

Nicholas Hammond
REEF program instructor

They aren’t required to start a company like Powell did, said Nick Hammond, assistant director and associate vice president for economic development and REEF program instructor. That isn’t the point.

The goal is for the students to gain skills beyond what they might get in a lab, such as financial planning and simplifying their science to explain its impact to potential investors.

Nick Hammond accepts a gift from Ryan McDonald, an UMBC graduate student in the REEF program.

“One in 10 graduate students today will find themselves on the tenure track, which means they’re not trained for anything else,” Hammond said. “They need to understand how to communicate their research outside the academic environment. This just enables their career no matter what direction it may go.”

Eight students participated in the REEF program for the 2016-17 year. The students met monthly to hone their idea with guidance from Hammond and mentors, such as chief executive officers and local entrepreneurs , who offer real-life experience.

Ted Olsen of PathSensors, Ken Malone of Early Charm Ventures, Gianna Arnold of Saul Ewing LLP, Steve Dubin of SD Ventures, Paul Silber of Blu Venture Investors, Dalton Tong of Johns Hopkins University, and Vince Talbert of Camden Partners are just some of those that have helped mentor the students in the REEF program over the last three years.

The students are taught to consider every avenue from intellectual property and regulatory issues, to marketing and manufacturing, to determine as early as possible if an idea is commercially viable, financially feasible, and meaningful to society, Hammond said.

“The idea is to kill ideas fast so you don’t spend a lot of time and resources on an idea that wouldn’t have worked,” he said. “Why research this if it’s never going to have a meaningful result in society? Basic research is fine, but you have to think about these concepts as you decide which questions to ask and pursue in the lab.”

At the end of the program, the students pitch their business plan to a panel of local investors who serve as judges that can offer the students praise and advice. The top three pitches win a non-monetary prize.

Mary Larkin, who initially found the idea of starting a business daunting, won Best Pitch this year.

Larkin is an UMCES graduate student who studies under her adviser, Allen Place, at IMET. She uses zebrafish as a model species to research diet and inflammation and ways to mitigate inflammation.

For REEF, she imagined a business around the horseshoe crab. She proposed using the facilities at IMET to aquaculture horseshoe crabs because their commercially valuable blood helps test the safety of several biomedical products, including vaccines. She named her business Blue Blood.

This was Larkin’s second year in the program, which allowed her to build on the skills she had learned previously, but she said she still found new lessons to learn.

“One of the most challenging aspects of the program is learning to speak boldly about ourselves, our research, and our business proposals. Many of us are the quiet, introverted, science types,” she said.

That’s the exact type of character that stands to gain the most from REEF, she added.

“It is unlike anything else a typical graduate student will experience, and much different from a job interview,” Larkin said. “You have to be confident and succinct. We are taught that the first 30 seconds of the pitch is critical. You need to attempt to establish a personal connection to the investor panel and even evoke a little bit of emotion, if possible, to garner their interest and attention.”

Echoing Hammond, Larkin said it’s important for graduate students to be aware of and prepared for alternative career choices.

“Whether one is managing a university laboratory, working for a company, or launching a business, the concepts taught in REEF are all applicable,” she said. “For those who will remain on an academic track, they will likely pause and consider the patentability of research discoveries before going public with their findings.”

The REEF program started in 2014 with a three-year $600,000 grant from the Philip E. and Carole R. Ratcliffe Foundation. The grant was renewed through 2020.

The program pools graduate students from UMCES, UMBC, and University of Maryland, Baltimore, but has been restricted to only those based at IMET.

Hammond plans to expand REEF to include students based at UMCES’ other laboratories, which include Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, and Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, starting this fall.

Hammond said students who go through the program can apply for a stipend and if they get it, they are encouraged to return a second year to help the first-year students. Accepting a stipend also requires the student undertake an externship.

Hammond helps them imagine their future and then connect them with an institution that would advance their career, whether that’s a small engineering firm or the National Aquarium, where Larkin is completing hers.

“This is another way to help diversify their skillsets and make them well-rounded individuals,” Hammond said. 

UMCES graduate research assistants, Yuanchao Zhan, Saddef Haq, and Mary Larkin each receive a jacket from Hammond for completing two years of the REEF program.