Entrepreneurial Engineers Pitch Ideas for Social and Environmental Startups

| June 27, 2024

The Das Family Innovate x LA Student Competition challenges students to develop high-impact urban solutions and compete for a $20,000 prize.

FungiFix, winners of the 2024 Das Family Innovate x LA Student Competition, celebrate with jurors and the CEE team

FungiFix, winners of the 2024 Das Family Innovate x LA Student Competition, celebrate with jurors and the CEE team

Engineering for environmental stewardship, disaster resilience, urban livability, extreme habitats, transport service systems…. The focus areas of the Sonny Astani Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) strategic vision encompass key challenges and opportunities to inspire entrepreneurial-minded engineers.

Each year, the department hosts the Innovate x LA: Das Family Student Competition in which students from across the university have the chance to develop and pitch impactful startup ideas informed by civil and environmental engineering concepts. The city of Los Angeles provides a test site for ideas with global application, motivated by the commitment to strengthen communities and address the ecological health of the planet.

From the kickoff in the fall semester up to Demo Day in the spring, student teams attend six monthly seminars and receive guidance from industry leaders and startup founders. This year, seminar speakers included social entrepreneur and technologist Mateo Abascal, startup founder Ralph Lin (managing director for the Viterbi Office of Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship) and social justice-oriented investor Emma Ohanian.

The startup ideas are put to the test on Demo Day, when teams present to a panel of industry leaders and compete for a $20,000 prize to develop the winning idea. The competition is enabled by the generous support of the Das family, and the 2024 panel included CEE alumni Santanu and Kelly Das, startup investor Matthew Shackleford, USC Chief Sustainability Officer Mick Dalrymple and strategist Jennifer Zhao from Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator.

The $20,000 prize provides students with their first taste of seed funding, and this year’s winning team was FungiFix – a startup premised on harnessing the soil-sustaining capabilities of mushrooms to repair the harms of industrial pollution.

Below, you can read the elevator pitches and watch the teams present their ideas. Which startup do you think could be the most impactful – which team would you choose to invest in?

Brooke Robertson, Lair Champion, Mitchell Kirby, Natalie Miller, Sophie Antevy

FungiFix: Water Alpha: Innovate x LA Student team
FungiFix proposes using mushrooms to decontaminate soil in areas compromised by industrial waste. Small but powerful fungi uptake contaminants, enriching the soil and mitigating the pollution of groundwater aquifers. The mushrooms can then be used to create concrete blended bricks – safely locking in the contaminants and providing an ecologically sustainable and affordable building material.

Water Alpha
Kexin (Kathy) Ma, Shounak Joshi, Weijian Ding

Water Alpha: Innovate x LA Student team
WaterAlpha focuses on developing a portable, real-time monitoring and analysis system for thin-film materials, applicable for water treatment membranes, fuel cell battery membranes and medical applications such as artificial organs. By proactively monitoring material fatigue in these areas, the goal is to ensure efficient operation and contribute to sustainable practices in water treatment, energy storage and medical technologies.

Hailey Chung, Selin Demircan

EcoFlush: Innovate x LA Student team
You might be surprised to learn that toilet flushing makes up 30% of household water usage. Given the ongoing drought in Southern California, EcoFlush aims to reduce the amount of water required for flushing; their idea involves applying the continuity equation to reinvent the shape of toilet tanks, thereby increasing flow velocity.

Hopeful Havens
Florence Rivkin, Keerthana Kumareswaran, Jazmyn Breanna, Mika Jain

Hopeful Havens: Innovate x LA Student team
Hopeful Havens address urban livability challenges in Los Angeles by incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) experiences into innovative play structures and under-resourced public spaces. By equipping children with tools in self-regulation, decision making and empathy-building, Hopeful Havens actively reduces the conditions of stress and disempowerment that cause health conditions and provoke crime.

Anette Sandoval, Jacqueline Franco, Nam Nguyen, Noy Chatoyan

The idea for BioFlare was sparked by learning about the incredibly harsh conditions faced by millions of Ukranians when 40% of the country’s energy infrastructure was damaged from Russian missile and drone strikes during the winter of 2022-23. Targeted for households in low-infrastructure areas, BioFlare is an affordable and portable biodigester that transforms food waste into methane gas for cooking, enabling sustainable waste management and self-sufficient daily energy generation.

Click here to learn more about USC Viterbi Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Published on June 27th, 2024

Last updated on June 27th, 2024

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