Biological and agricultural engineering (BAE) graduate students Achala Rao and Yike Chen were selected to the 2020-21 class of Business Development Fellows by the UC Davis Mike and Renee Child Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. As fellows, Rao and Chen are part of a diverse, interdisciplinary group of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from across UC Davis who will spend the 2020-21 school year developing the commercial potential of their research.
Rao is an incoming M.S. student and self-described synthetic biology enthusiast. Her interest in business stemmed from her senior engineering design project as a BAE undergraduate at UC Davis in 2019, where her team developed a pH monitoring system for bioreactors in the biopharmaceutical industry. After the project was over, they decided to incorporate as PHIXED Systems.
“The BAE department really supports entrepreneurship and everything we do in our undergrad has the potential to be something beyond just a project,” said Rao.
The team then entered the Child Institute’s Big Bang! Business competition, where Rao was inspired to pursue entrepreneurship by the support and mentorship her team received. In that time, she helped run the new company and develop the product into a comprehensive bioreactor monitoring system. She now hopes to build on what she’s learned, sharpen her skills and prepare her for a career in business.
“The fellowship is an opportunity to get the business know-how of running a company,” she said. “It’s a really exciting opportunity to work with other like-minded people to develop a network and a product that can be robust in various industries. It also seemed like the next logical step for me, so I can get a more in-depth understanding of the nuances that I’ve learned about the industry.”
Chen is a Ph.D. student in BAE professor Ruihong Zhang’s lab. In his years with the lab, he has worked on a variety of sustainability projects with industry and feels like the lab is full of great ideas waiting to be commercialized. His current project, for example, involves composting dairy manure into fertilizer for almond orchards to not only reduce waste, but also improve soil health with fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have a lot of great ideas in our lab and we just need some training and be able to tell a good story so we can commercialize them in the future,” he said.
Chen is excited to be part of the interdisciplinary program and make connections with other graduate students around UC Davis, both in the STEM disciplines and in the Graduate School of Management. He feels that network, plus the mentorship the program offers, will help him be both a better researcher and a better businessperson after he finishes his Ph.D.
“I think every engineer or scientist needs to have some business development training during their career,” he said.