ChBE Student Represents UMD in DOE Cleantech UP Business Plan Competition

news story image

Alex Hemmer, an undergraduate Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department student, represented the University of Maryland at the U.S. Department of Energy's Cleantech University Prize (Cleantech UP) competition this summer as a representative of Manta Biofuel, a Baltimore-based biotech company developing algae-based transportation fuel.

Hemmer's Manta Biofuel team was one of 21 university teams in Denver for the Cleantech UP business plan competition in June. Prior to that, Hemmer's team placed 2nd at a regional competition held in March at Carnegie-Mellon University, garnering a $15,000 prize. UMD sponsored her trip to the competition in Denver, where she also attended a workshop on business startups and took a tour of the nearby National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The competition involved more than simply describing the company's technology, but articulating its market research and business model in a compelling manner. Formulating and delivering that business pitch required her to step up her public speaking skills beyond what she has honed in classroom experiences, Hemmer said.

"It was presenting on something that we did and presenting to people for money, and that really matters. It was the first time I had that kind of responsibility. I really cared about doing a good job and I really prepared a lot," she said.

While the UMD team did not win the national competition, Hemmer said being at the event was academically rewarding.

"When we went to the national competition, we thought everyone there was amazing. I was inspired by everyone there because it was a ton of students who were working together to solve a bunch of the world's energy problems," she said. "It was very competitive."

Hemmer, a rising senior, has been working with Manta and gaining hands-on experience with its technology as well as developing know-how with business development and planning. The Cleantech UP competition ties together STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies and entrepreneurship, Hemmer noted.

This summer, Hemmer also worked on Manta's algae ponds in Maryland, which she related differ from other algae oil producers in that these ponds grow more than one strain of algae. Also, other facilities use more expensive bioreactors where algae may be susceptible to viruses. By contrast and by design, the Manta Biofuel ponds are open and the algae grow along with other organisms, even weeds. The algae are harvested with a ferromagnetic bead system invented by Dr. Ryan Powell, an alumnus of UMD. The system is patent pending. The harvested algal biomass is converted to crude oil in a hydrothermal liquefaction process, according the Manta Biofuel website.

In June, Manta was awarded a $1 million grant from DOE's Small Business Innovation and Research program (SBIR).

Hemmer said it is very exciting as a full-time student to also work with Manta, which she is currently scheduled to do through December. She also hopes to continue working for the company after that. "I'm getting my hands dirty a lot. It's not the typical internship," Hemmer said.

Published July 18, 2016