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Published May 09, 2018
Kennan Oyen nearly dropped out of the annual John P. Ellbogen $50K Entrepreneurship Competition at the University of Wyoming. Luckily, she didn’t.
Oyen and fellow UW student Claire Ratcliffe recently turned their projects as students into potential Wyoming businesses.
Oyen and Ratcliffe were awarded $25,000 each in the entrepreneurship competition run by the UW College of Business and supported by the John P. Ellbogen Foundation. The competition awards cash prizes to outstanding teams of student entrepreneurs who submit their business plans for new ventures that show significant business potential.
Known as the UW $10K Competition until 2011, the John P. Ellbogen $50K Entrepreneurship Competition encourages students to act on their talents, ideas and energy to produce tomorrow’s leading businesses. New for this year’s competition was an increase in the prize money from $30,000 to $50,000, and teams could enter their business ideas in two newly created categories: business track and social enterprise track.
Oyen, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology, originally from Fairbanks, Alaska, created IoTherm, which was the business track grand prize winner. She developed her company with her husband, Joey, originally from Crooks, S.D., who is an area manager for Simon Contractors. IoTherm creates precision temperature control systems that are small, benchtop and/or portable, customizable units designed to perfectly accommodate standard laboratory glass vials in which combinatorial biology can be performed.
Ratcliffe, a recent graduate of the UW College of Education with an M.S. degree in natural science education, and Bryan Jewell, a Salt Lake Community College horticulture major, both from Salt Lake City, Utah, developed GROWyoming. Their business, which won the social enterprise track, provides garden-based education resources and support for K-12 schools and youth programs in southeast Wyoming.
Less than a month before the competition, Oyen had serious doubts about continuing with preparations for her presentation. She was overwhelmed and wanted to spend her additional time preparing to defend her Ph.D. dissertation. She notified the competition’s organizers, who worked with her to stay in the competition because she had a solid plan.
It turned out that she did, winning against four other competitors in her category.
“I was just blessed to win,” she says.
Oyen says the business idea for IoTherm was born out of her dissertation research, which focuses on the hottest and coldest temperatures bumblebees can withstand. Her dissertation defense came just a week after the Ellbogen competition. She will graduate with her doctoral degree in ecology May 12.
Along with her adviser, Michael Dillon, a UW zoology and physiology associate professor, Oyen wanted to know the limits to predict how climate variability might influence different bumblebee populations.
“There weren’t commercial heating/cooling options available that fit our research needs, so we decided to try to build something better,” Oyen says.
Specifically, they needed to visualize their samples -- bumblebees in this case; heat and cool, which many related systems only do one or the other; and develop something lightweight and portable.
“Designing a system like this was difficult. It took many hours in the lab to get a setup going that actually worked,” she says. “But, finally, we came up with something that we now call the benchtop cooler.”
The benchtop cooler has all the capabilities needed to run the unique tests, making it one of the only systems of its kind.
She says they have realized that the systems are potentially useful for several different applications, which she hopes will expand the product in new directions.
“The $25,000 investment will help us do this by allowing us to patent our next designs and, hopefully, release our next products sooner than we otherwise would have,” Oyen says.
The company will be based in Laramie, and Oyen hopes to do most things -- such as manufacturing, machining and design work -- in Wyoming.
“I am starting to build connections throughout the state with other businesses that can help us,” she adds.
GROWyoming (Growing Real Opportunities for Wyoming) provides garden education and support for K-12 schools and after-school programs. The business currently operates in Albany County, but Ratcliffe says she plans to expand to Laramie County and Saratoga.
“We are focused on building relationships with our clients, and our services are catered to meet the specific needs of each youth program, whether they just need garden supplies, curriculum, outreach programs or help with garden maintenance,” Ratcliffe says.
GROWyoming’s original concept was developed in 2013, when Ratcliffe and Jewell, director of the company’s garden operations, worked at a Utah Boys and Girls Club. They started a garden program for youth and were able to grow plenty of food for the kids to take home to their families. They also taught science lessons in the garden and held weekly cooking classes with the garden’s produce.
“Since then, we’ve always had a dream to start our own youth garden center,” Ratcliffe says.
She says GROWyoming’s curriculum meets the new Wyoming state science standards for each grade level they work with so that “everything they are learning with us is relevant to what they are learning in the classroom.”
Their business also offers garden workshops for community residents on such topics as building hoop houses, water-saving techniques and container gardening. Future plans call for offering summer camps to students in K-6 grades; volunteer/community service opportunities for middle school and high school students; and developing a space to host garden and science-themed birthday parties.
All of GROWyoming’s services offered to schools and after-school programs are free, and they are funded entirely by grants, donations and by revenue generated from the workshops.
“The competition’s award money is pivotal for our essential startup costs,” she says. The prize money will be used to help fund incorporation expenses, purchase a company truck and landscaping supplies, and hire an intern.
“We have tripled the number of programs we offer since last year, so an intern will be incredibly helpful to help us expand our reach to the community,” Ratcliffe says.
The company also received an additional $1,000 as the Bill Daniels Business Ethics Award winner.
Two other business plans also received awards during the competition:
-- John P. Ellbogen Entrepreneurial Distinction Award in Business: Medical Device Advisors and owner Grace Tena de Lara, a student with The Array School of Technology and Design in Cheyenne. Medical Device Advisors is an online community that provides a five-star rating system with comments, specifications and links to scientific studies for those seeking research data, and also for health care professionals to quickly review medical devices based on experiences of other users.
-- John P. Ellbogen Entrepreneurial Distinction Award in Social Enterprise: Sunao and owner Jerica Hunter, a College of Business MBA student, from Worland. Sunao provides a service to businesses and consumers with the goal of eliminating the use of conventional plastic bags.