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Iowa State student launches business to market new technology

Shivani Garg is testing a sustainable material to replace petroleum-based chemicals in several products.  Photo by Bob Elbert
Shivani Garg is testing a sustainable material to replace petroleum-based chemicals in several products. Photo by Bob Elbert

AMES, Iowa – An Iowa State graduate student is another step closer in the development of a bio-based raw material to improve household detergents, lubricants (such as motor oil) and bio-based polymers (such as polyesters). Shivani Garg, a doctoral student in biochemistry and founder of OmegaChea Biorenewables LLC, says the sustainable material could replace petroleum-based chemicals used in these products and improve performance and effectiveness.

“For example, some detergents don’t work very well at low temperatures or some lubricants freeze at lower temperatures,” Garg said. “We will make the products better if we can maintain a liquid state at a lower temperature.”

Garg has found a way to do that by modifying the chemical structure of fatty acids in bacteria. The next step is to scale up the production and test how the material performs in larger quantities. If it proves effective for mass production, Garg says companies like Proctor and Gamble or Cargill could use the raw material in their products.

“If we can overcome those technical challenges and produce this sustainable raw material in large quantities, I would consider that a success,” Garg said.

Transforming science into a business plan

Getting a product from the lab to the marketplace is no small task. Basil Nikolau, a professor in biochemistry who oversees Garg’s research, says companies are often reluctant to embrace a new technology because of the potential risk. That’s why more scientists are launching startup companies to push their technology.

“Chemical companies have access to inexpensive petroleum products. If a technology is not established, if it’s new, there’s a risk associated with using it,” Nikolau said. “A startup entity provides one with the means to ‘de-risk’ the technology so that bigger companies can then come in and advance it even further.”

It only seemed natural for Garg to develop her lab work into a startup after taking an entrepreneurship class during the course of her doctorate. And the decision has paid off. Garg was selected for the National Science Foundation’s Innovation-Corps program, which helped her create her business model and explore the commercial feasibility of the technology. Her business plan for OmegaChea (pronounced Omega KEE-uh) also took top honors at the Pappajohn New Venture Student Business Plan Competition. She’ll use the $5,000 prize to grow her business.

“I’m getting to do what I always wanted to do. I just never imagined doing this while getting my Ph.D.,” Garg said.

Encouraging entrepreneurship

The Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship at Iowa State not only provides encouragement, but real experience for students who want to start their own business. The center helps students build different skill sets, such as marketing, developing a business plan and finding funding for their ideas.

“We give students a place to test their idea, put it in action, and then get feedback and get a feel for whether their idea is feasible. Then we help connect them with the resources they need to move forward,” said Judi Eyles, associate director of the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship.

Not every idea will lead to a successful business, but Eyles says students can apply the skills they learn to other aspects of their career. And it can give new meaning to the work students must complete to earn their degree. Nikolau says students feel empowered when they see how their research can serve a greater purpose.

“Students see they can actually have an impact, they’re not just here getting their Ph.D. and then moving on and doing something else,” Nikolau said. “They’re getting their Ph.D. and developing a technology that will impact society.”

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