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Last year, Eben Bayer ’07 created an organic insulation using waste agricultural materials, water, and mushrooms that could replace the traditional foam insulation in homes. The material, which is patented, is less expensive than conventional rigid foam board, and not harmful to the environment because it is made of organic materials.

The insulation is created by pouring a mixture of insulating particles and nutrients into a panel enclosure, and injecting it with mushroom cells that digest the nutrients and produce a tightly meshed network of insulating particles and mycelium. The result is an organic composite board that has a competitive R-Value — a measurement of resistance to heat flow — and can serve as a firewall.

Bayer teamed up with Gavin McIntyre ’07 to produce larger samples with different substrates, particles, and conditions. They formed a company called Ecovative Design LLC, located in the Rensselaer Incubator Center, to commercialize their organic insulation technology, which they call Greensulate™. The duo is seeking funding and industry partners to commercialize and distribute their product.

Last year, the natural insulation was the winning entry in Rensselaer’s “Change the World Challenge” idea competition, which rewards viable ideas that make the world a better place. Bayer was also a finalist for the Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize competition, the prestigious award given to a senior or graduate student who applies technology in a new way. And, in December, Ecovative Design was awarded £10,000 (approximately $20,500 U.S.) as a winner of the 21st Century Challenge Competition hosted by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.

Bayer credits the success of his idea to the PDI program and Swersey’s constant encouragement and persistence.

“PDI allows students to think in new and creative ways by asking them to address — and solve — the major problems facing our world,” says Bayer. “Burt really convinces students they can make a difference in the world by inventing new technologies and starting companies, and the incredible track record of student start-ups originating in his class speaks directly to Burt’s success in teaching, inspiring, and guiding students.”

Designs on the Future

Ecovative Design’s Eben Bayer ’07 and Gavin McIntyre ’07
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Another pair of Inventor’s Studio students, Jessica Chin ’07 and Dan Farrow ’07, formed JDAxis Inc., a start-up company developing a new foot-scanning technology called STOMP (Scanning Thermal and Optical Measurement Platform). Designed to help diabetic patients identify foot disorders caused by the disease, the machine could prove to be a beneficial screening tool for the almost 250 million people suffering from diabetes worldwide.

In May, JDAxis Inc. won the $50,000 Tech Valley Collegiate Business Plan Competition, receiving $5,000 in cash and $20,000 in seed funding; $15,000 in legal, patent, and financial services; travel to a national business plan competition; and a one-year virtual membership in Rensselaer’s Incubator Program.

Ecovative Design LLC and JDAxis Inc. also recently won first and second place, respectively, at this year’s inaugural Innovation Showcase competition, a national idea competition sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in collaboration with the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and Idea to Product competitions.

Both student start-ups continue to work closely with Swersey and other faculty members at Rensselaer as they develop their companies.

Anticipating a Trend

Rensselaer’s PDI program already was well-established and gaining recognition in 2004 when the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) launched a visionary initiative to anticipate what engineers would face in the future and how their educations should be supplemented to prepare them for the rapidly changing global society.

Called the “Engineer of 2020,” the report described the need for more broadly educated engineers equipped to anticipate social needs and to envision creative solutions to a number of trends — including a growing demand for diversity in the engineering workforce, and the imperative for sustainability in the face of global population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and environmental degradation.

Calling for a new generation of engineers who are not only technically proficient, but also ethically grounded global citizens who are well prepared to address the complex technical, social, and ethical questions raised by emerging technologies, the report became an influential call to action for curricula developers around the globe.

“Now, more than ever, we have to create students who can help,” says Swersey. “I look at our program as a pilot program not only for engineering education but for the future of all disciplines.”

As scientific advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and other disciplines continue to evolve at an exponential rate, and global concerns regarding the environment become increasingly urgent, tomorrow’s engineers and designers will be called upon like never before to act as leaders in industry, academia, and government.

Responding to the needs of the 21st century will take unprecedented innovation, social awareness, global mindedness, and the courage to commit to tackling seemingly insolvable problems.

For Rensselaer students and faculty, it’s a challenge they’ve been waiting for.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.