A Practical Look at Entrepreneurship

Students dream up big ideas for algae during first-ever Colby Creates Innovation Day

Business design strategist Owen Sanderson, right, interviews Halloran Lab director Jeremy Barron '00 during the first-ever Colby Creates Innovation Day.
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Michael G. Seamans
February 20, 2024

Consider the algae: diverse and prolific, this group of mostly marine organisms can be as small as a microscopic, single-celled diatom or as large as giant kelp, which can grow to 160 feet long. 

Algae, which are abundant in fiber, vitamins, and protein, also have lots of potential for discovery. Although there are likely more than a million unique species, only 40,000 have been identified and only a few dozen are regularly used for food or industrial purposes. 

And so, for budding entrepreneurs, algae is a fruitful field for innovation and possibility—which made it a great choice as the subject of the first-ever Colby Creates Innovation Day, hosted Saturday by the Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. 

Colby Creates is a new initiative of the Halloran Lab and an adaptation of the highly successful Start Summit series at the Roux Institute at Northeastern University, said Jeremy Barron ’00, the lab’s inaugural director. 

“It’s a chance to get students together focused around an industry of choice, to learn both about that industry and also principles that we think are really important in innovation and entrepreneurship,” he said.

A new signature event 

Barron is hopeful that Colby Creates will become one of the signature events hosted by the Halloran Lab each semester. While the structure will include workshops on design thinking, customer discovery, and pitching, the industry and backdrop for innovation will change. For future events, Barron wants to hear from students about which industries or problems are most interesting to them, and he also hopes to work with alumni and industry experts to identify subjects with real-world applications. 

Algae experts and algae-focused entrepreneurs talk to students during Colby Creates Innovation Day.

“Each event will focus on industries with deep connections to and impact in Maine,” he said, adding that algae is a good example of those. “Algae can be used in so many different, innovative ways in so many industries. I felt that it was the right backdrop for an exciting, open-ended innovation challenge that could result in all sorts of interesting ideas that the students will hopefully come up with today.” 

In addition to giving students a chance to learn and practice entrepreneurial skills, the workshop also introduced them to Maine-based “blue economy,” or ocean-focused companies that are using algae in innovative ways. 

“There’s a huge amount of diversity yet to be explored,” said Mike Lomas, director of the Bigelow National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota. “That’s why we’re here: to accelerate innovation and translation of this ivory tower knowledge to foster the growth of a sustainable and ecologically sound algal value pyramid.” 

Halloran Lab director Jeremy Barron ’00 chats with participants and panelists.

The 20 students at the workshop spent the morning learning about algae and hearing from entrepreneurs with ideas for algae, including Portland-based Everything Seaweed’s replacement for toxic PFAS-coated food packaging. Then they learned about entrepreneurial skills such as design thinking, the customer-discovery process, and how to build a pitch for investors. 

After that, they had the opportunity to practice those skills by splitting into teams, each of which was challenged to identify a problem and find a potential solution to that problem by using algae in food or food-adjacent industries. 

Student teams came up with ideas that included a nutritious and convenient algae-focused meal kit; a healthy alternative for synthetic food dye within the meat substitute market; an algae-derived protein syrup that would be easier to use than currently available protein powders; and a concept to use decorative tank installations to educate the public about the biodiversity of algae while accelerating the study of different strains. 

Learning how to be an entrepreneur

The teams competed for $3,000 in prizes, but that’s not why students like Ina Alvarado ’27 signed up to participate. 

“I am just really interested in innovation in a lot of ways,” she said. “I feel like coming here has helped me grasp more of the process. A lot of times, it’s hard for me to visualize [the process], but having this be like how it would be if you actually started a company, it kind of brings it into reality.” 

Students split into teams to discuss the process that leads to making a pitch for investors, including identifying a problem, finding a solution, and interviewing potential customers.

Rishi Francis ’27, who is hoping to become a biochemistry major, is also interested in innovation and perhaps starting his own medical technology company. He has an idea for a first product, an improvement of the medical alerts that are now on the market. Those alerts require users to press a button to alert authorities when they’re in distress. But what if the users aren’t able to press the button? Francis’s idea is to invent a device that will monitor vital signs like a person’s pulse rate and automatically alert someone if the user’s pulse drops too low. 

He got the idea when working at a nursing home and saw how patients used the same button to call for help whether they wanted a glass of water or were having a true emergency. And even though the medical technology field seems pretty far removed from algae, the chance to learn more about entrepreneurship was invaluable. 

“I’m just trying to understand how it is to be an entrepreneur,” Francis said. “I think I’m learning a lot.”