Two students receive USC Wrigley Sustainability Prize

Valeriy Cherepakhin, a graduate student majoring in chemistry, and Zhiyao Lu, a postdoctoral scholar, won the second annual USC Wrigley Sustainability Prize Monday for their company, Catapower. The company focuses on processes that upgrade types of plastic.

Learning from guidance · Valeriy Cherepakhin, a graduate student majoring in chemistry, and Zhiyao Lu, a postdoctoral scholar, received guidance from mentors who helped them develop their ideas and put them into action. Photo courtesy of Maurice Roper.

“We turned what is in the U.S., subsidized agricultural feedstock, into value-added renewable chemicals,” Lu said. “In this case, we made biodiesel because it is very beneficial to the environment.”

Cherepakhin and Lu were one of seven teams selected to give their final pitch at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center in front of a panel of judges, the culminating point in a process that spanned the past month. Students drafted business plans and honed their pitches, while assigned mentors helped them along the way to translate their ideas into action.

“They’ve shown us how to make a pitch, how to deliver a pitch, how to really show our science [in a way] that’s going to have a translational value, because we as scientists, we usually deal with equipment or labwear, we don’t deal with people that much,” Lu said.

The USC Wrigley Sustainability Prize was founded last year to inspire and support the development of entrepreneurial businesses focused on improving the environment.

Chase Puentes, Program Coordinator for the Wrigley Sustainability Prize, said the competition’s aim is to combine profitability with environmental care.

“Our biggest goal is to marry this idea of environmentalism and sustainability with business and entrepreneurship,” Puentes said. “We found that a lot of times there’s a gap there and many business-minded people are profit-driven and many environmental applicants or people who are trying to run with that theme are not so much business-trained or business-minded so we’re trying to put those two together and come up with some really cool profitable but also environmentally beneficial ideas in the end.”

Along with the $7,000 in prize money, Cherepakhin and Lu won the recognition that last year’s competitors used to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside funding to implement their ideas.

Interphase Materials, the company that won last year’s competition, received $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to implement its nano-cooling technology to improve power plant efficiency. Interphase Materials recently signed a contract with the U.S. Navy as well.

Holly Tassi, who placed third in last year’s competition, used her winnings to conduct feasibility research in Ghana for her company Believe in Bambara. Her goal is to build the infrastructure necessary to support the cultivation of the Bambara nut, a highly nutritious and sustainable legume that could alleviate hunger and provide economic relief.

For Tassi, the Wrigley Sustainability Prize competition didn’t just help her refine her pitch, it inspired her and gave her the confidence to actually implement her idea.

“I think I took away more confidence in the business model and the business idea,” Tassi said. “I think that comes into play a lot from my mentor as well as, you know, receiving a prize is also helpful and a validation of itself. I do just feel a lot more confident in being able to communicate concisely what my business idea is.”

For the organizers, the continued success of their participants is encouraging for them to continue putting on the program.

“We launched the competition to support the institute’s goal to not only deepen understanding of our environment, but to develop practical solutions for preserving it,” Puentes said in a Dornsife news release. “So we’re incredibly proud and grateful to hear stories of success — less than a year later — from students in programs throughout the university.”