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Students Make Kelp Their Business

Southern students in a kelp innovation class successfully combined their idealism with real-world applications to take home several awards recently at the 23rd Connecticut Business Conference and Competition administered by the Entrepreneurship Foundation.

While the judges generally listen to in-person presentations at this competition, the coronavirus pandemic changed the format so that students instead developed 60-second video “elevator pitches.” For Southern, this involved novel products made from sugar kelp grown in Long Island Sound, according to Colleen Bielitz, associate vice president for strategic initiatives and outreach.

Bielitz and Patrick Heidkamp, chairman of the Environment, Geography and Marine Sciences Department, created the kelp innovation class as part of the Project Blue Initiative. Kelp is a large, nutrient-rich, brown seaweed.

“For the majority of students, this class was the first time they were exposed to an innovation perspective to sustainability,” Heidkamp said. “I am incredibly proud of what the students accomplished—especially considering the course had to pivot from an on-the-ground, hands-on learning environment to a fully online course due to COVID-19.”

Heather Cushing placed first in the Blue Economy Pitches category for her proposal of a Shoreline Kelp Festival, a kelp-centric event that would feature music, kelp food and beverages, and a week-long restaurant week that includes a three-course kelp meal experience.

“I was quite surprised and excited to learn I had won, as there were some really great ideas for kelp products,” Cushing said. “Kelp has many benefits, both environmentally and nutritionally. A festival is a way to foster interest and knowledge towards Connecticut’s emerging kelp industry.”

Cushing conceded her festival idea will not happen immediately because of the coronavirus pandemic. But she is hopeful it can happen when things improve.

“The interest is there,” she said. “It’s just a matter of organizing and putting it all together. Late spring would be the ideal season to hold the event as that is when the kelp is harvested.”

Kelly Kingston placed second in the same category for her plan for Kelpie, a vegan, nutrient-rich, kelp-based egg substitute. Larissa Anderson finished third for her pitch of Kelpon, a 100-perent biodegradable tampon made with only organic cotton and kelp.

Meanwhile, the team of graduate student Louie Krak and undergraduates Maeve Rourke and Gia Mentillo won the Mobile App category. They developed an app called “Oceans of data at your fingertips,” which delivers real-time ocean data to seaweed and shellfish ocean farmers in Long Island Sound and beyond.

“The customizable data hub provides water quality parameters vital to crop health and bounty at the touch of a button, eliminating the guesswork and inconvenience of daily self-collection,” Krak said. “I could not be prouder to win alongside the outstanding and indomitable Maeve Rourke and Gia Mentillo.”

“The competition provided invaluable experience for all kelp class participants as a handful of their projects will undergo continued development this summer,” Bielitz said.

A CTNext Grant will provide a total of $75,000 for those projects to help convert the ideas into reality.



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