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Robot dogs and genetically engineered flies: Students present their innovative ideas at Founder’s Day

From harnessing the power of high-altitude winds to safely extracting blood clots from the heart’s arteries to reducing hospitalization of infant kangaroos, University of Minnesota students showcased their vision of the future at the 12th annual Founder’s Day, co-hosted by the University of Minnesota Libraries and the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship in the Carlson School of Management.

Twenty-one student teams participated in the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) Challenge, presenting their prototypes or pilot program to the University community and potential customers and investors, each team competing for grant awards ranging from $100 to $5,000. 

Aditay Prabhu, Chase Anderson, and Lucas Payne were voted the night’s crowd favorite for their project, Canopy Systems, a long-range communication system to help growers monitor conditions in indoor and outdoor farms, as well as greenhouses. Prabhu was also named the 2024 Student Entrepreneur of Year. 

“Canopy started actually on my windowsill,” said Prabhu, a senior computer engineering major graduating this spring. “When I went off to college, I had no way to know if my plants got enough water or not. Low and behold, I was like, ‘We can probably use our engineering skills to build something for that.’” 

But Prabhu soon realized that this idea had potential beyond growing pots of pothos or kitchen herbs. In 2022, he decided to visit greenhouses around the Twin Cities to learn how they measured humidity, temperature, soil moisture and nutrients, and so on. And what he found was an industry “stuck in the past” and dependent on inflexible, clunky technology. 

Prabhu, Anderson, and Payne developed their first prototype soon after, a small sensor the size of your palm and completely powered by solar energy, that could remotely measure and control growing conditions. 

Aditya Prabhu poses with his award for Student Entrepreneur of the Year during Founder's Day at Walter Library on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. (Photo/Adria Carpenter)

Aditya Prabhu poses with his award for Student Entrepreneur of the Year during Founder’s Day at Walter Library on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. (Photo/Adria Carpenter)

The sensor worked perfectly for Prabhu’s windowsill plants. Now the team is upscaling the project by building its own mini-greenhouse for testing and trying to integrate a fully automated system that would also control watering and lighting, which could make greenhouses and indoor farms more efficient. 

Throughout their planning and development process, the team were frequent visitors to the Toaster Innovation Hub in Walter Library. The space’s resources not only helped them 3D print necessary equipment like PETG and PLA enclosures, but also design marketing materials like stickers. 

“UMN Libraries in general is just such a great space to meet other like-minded people,” Prabhu said. “I’ve been at the Toaster so many times for different student groups and events … I’ve met so many people in this space, it’s been unreal.” 

Other MVP winners

Other MVP winners included:

  • Best Digital project, Vertex 360, a trauma-informed community referral platform developed by Mo Hicks that connects patients to community resources
  • Best Social project, School Support for Deployed and Relocated Veterans, a platform created by Logan Grayson to help deployed and re-stationed veterans continue their education
  • Best Physical project, Live on Minnesota by Erik Halaas, a sustainable alternative to traditional burials and cremations
  • Best Overall project, Nate Feltman’s Omega Bugs, genetically engineered black soldier flies that offer omega-3 fatty acids and protein.   

Dr. Linda Kinkel, a professor in the department of plant pathology and chief science officer for Jord BioScience, accepted the award for the 2024 Teacher Entrepreneur of the Year, and Michael Ramlet, founder and CEO of Morning Consult, was named the 2024 Alumnus Entrepreneur of the Year. 

Founder’s Day concluded with an investor panel in the Toaster and a presentation of experiential classes and student startups, like 2023’s MVP Challenge Audience Favorite, Telo: Walking Canes, or Rora intimacy products, co-founded by 2024’s BizPitch winner Sonja Kleven.

Adria Carpenter

Author Adria Carpenter

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