Four Camden Hills Regional High School students won a sustainable energy technology competition and received a $15,000 grant to jumpstart their plans to replace polystyrene buoys with a sustainable mushroom-based product.
The students, Maggie Blood, Tula Bradley-Prindiville, Olivia Huard, and Laura Riordon, participated in a business internship through the Hatchery, Camden Hills’ innovation center that enables students to innovate, create, problem solve, and pursue their passions. They joined five other teams from the Energy Institute High School in Houston to participate in the Energy Project internship sponsored by the Puranik Foundation. Camden Hills instructor Danny Salomon, director of the Hatchery, served as the team’s advisor and mentor.
“Our mission is to reduce the amount of microplastics we consume and improve the health of us and our planet by reducing plastic floats with our mushroom floats,” the team said during their pitch to judges.
Throughout the internship, the students engaged in coursework on design-thinking, prototyping, marketing, and business planning, all the while perfecting their plans and pitch to a group of judges in April. The judges selected the Camden Hills group as the winners of not just a transformational grant but also a two-week trip to a sustainability school in India.
The team wanted to use the business and sustainability skills they were learning to address a local sustainability issue. According to the students, there are an estimated 6 million buoys in use off the coast of Maine, and more than 30,000 are lost every year. When these petroleum-based buoys break down, they can end up in the food chain and in our bodies.
Their alternative? A new business called Refoam Maine, which will grow buoys naturally, using the root system of mushrooms, known as mycelium.
“As a team, we approached the Energy Project challenge by trying to assess what area in our community needs innovation. When we looked around at Maine – through the lens of what looks bad for the planet — we saw a lot of Styrofoam. If you go walk on beaches or islands, there is polystyrene everywhere … we identified our ‘problem space’ to be expanded polystyrene breaking off of dock flotation units,” Laura Riordon told the Camden Herald.
During their pitch to judges, Tula Bradley-Prindiville told the judges “to think of our business like a mycelium network” with their strong team at the center and a network of local businesses, experts, non-profits, advisors, and students who they are connected to.
“We have grown and developed with connections to our community, helping us conceptualize and design our product. We have also received support from our school board, and the community at large which is what has driven us to pursue this research,” said Riordon. “This project, along with other Hatchery projects, have built a space at school for students to follow things they are passionate about while learning skills for how to make a real impact. Over the next few months, our team plans to research mycelium growth in 55 gallon drums, and then expand next school year working with more students and community members.”
According to the team, their prototype “will be applicable to a variety of ocean uses: docks, mussel farming rafts, and aquaculture mooring buoys being our most promising areas. The beauty of the product is that it’s not produced in a factory, rather it is produced in the team’s local shop. Once fully grown, and cooked to stop the growth, the buoyant skeleton is ready for takeoff in the ocean.”
The students were recognized by their School Board in May for their vision, leadership, and success in the competition, and told the Board they were focused next on perfecting their prototype and getting projects into the water for testing. They are also talking to local marine companies, which they hope will one day purchase and use their products. The students told the Board that even if they hadn’t won, they were committed to finding a way to turn their business ideas into reality.
The Refoam Maine team looks forward to advancing their product research within the Hatchery, with continued support from its mycelial network, and seeks to grow the business by on boarding more students interested in participating in this exciting venture starting next school year.
You can follow their journey on Refoam Maine’s Instagram page.
Photos courtesy of Camden Hills Regional High School