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During the early weeks of a Cal Poly senior project course that allows entrepreneurship students and engineering students to work together to create a new solution to a real-world problem, recent business administration graduate Corinne Cooper and recent mechanical engineering graduates Ahkar Kyaw and Shalin Gogri found they all shared a passion for sustainability.
As a project group, they began to research the agriculture industry with a goal of increasing farming sustainability through innovation. They soon narrowed their focus to the strawberry industry after learning that strawberries are an essential local agricultural product, with the majority of California’s fresh strawberries coming from the nearby town of Santa Maria, according to Cooper.
Cal Poly also conducts ample research into sustainable growing practices for strawberries through the Cal Poly Strawberry Center, a research facility partnered with the California Strawberry Commission.
“There’s so many experts around us,” Cooper said. “[The strawberry industry] is such a resource-rich area for us to explore.”
Through their research, the project group found that an area’s ability to grow fresh produce is reliant on the local climate and environment. This discovery led them to develop hydroponic technology that would enable fresh produce to be grown locally, regardless of climate or season.
Hydroponics is a method of farming that allows plants to grow without soil — instead, it uses nutrient-rich water. Implementing hydroponic technology in greenhouses would allow fresh produce to grow in new climates.
What started as a senior project eventually turned into a startup, Sustainamade, formerly BetterBerry, when the project group applied for Innovation Quest (iQ), a prototyping and business plan hosted by the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE).
“Innovation Quest forced us to look at our project as a business for the first time,” Cooper said. “It confirmed that we were doing something that could actually make a difference.”
Sustainamade was one of twelve finalists to pitch their startup at iQ 2022. Although they did not win the competition, iQ was a valuable learning experience, Cooper said.
iQ also encouraged the Sustainamade co-founders to pursue their startup and apply to the Summer Accelerator, according to Kyaw.
The Summer Accelerator is a 13-week program sponsored by the CIE that provides Cal Poly students and recent graduates with the resources needed to turn their startup ideas into real businesses.
“We felt like we had something that we could change, something that we could actually achieve,” he said. “We realized that the Accelerator could help us with that, so we decided to get on board with the program.”
Sustainamade is currently working on their initial prototype modeling, Cooper said. Throughout the summer, they hope to ensure the feasibility and financial viability of their project.
Cooper said that she hopes their work with the Summer Accelerator eventually leads to increased accessibility to local produce for communities everywhere.
“So many communities are out of touch with where their food comes from,” she said. “If there’s a way that we can change the system and make it so local communities can grow their own food and have it accessible to everybody — I would say that’s our overarching goal.”
Cooper, along with representatives from the rest of the 2022 Summer Accelerator cohort, will pitch her startup and showcase the progress she and her team made throughout the summer at Demo Day, on Sept. 13 at 4 p.m. at SLO Brew Rock. In-person and virtual tickets are available here.