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Elizabeth Thompson, CEO & Founder, Greater Innovations

Founded in 2016 through the licensing of Purdue University intellectual property, Greater Innovations began a journey and a mission to bring sustainable technologies to market. Through R&D, strategic partnerships and consulting services, Elizabeth Thompson aims to impact sustainable development from a local to a global scale. Within her technology commercialization division, she partner with researchers to move innovations through proof of concept to product development in the areas of AgTech, Green Tech, Clean Tech and other spaces ripe for sustainable technology disruption.

More about Elizabeth:

1. Why did you decide to license a patented technology through Purdue University and make a business out of it?

As a part of my Master’s degree program, I had the opportunity to take a class in Technology Commercialization. During that class we learned about inventions, patents and technology licensing. I was interested in this concept and especially the idea that there were so many valuable technologies available from Purdue that simply needed someone to take them to the next step of commercialization.

2. Why mushrooms?

So officially, the technology I licensed is a “method and apparatus for producing biobased carriers from byproducts of biomass processing.” As a part of the commercialization process, it is important to pick a specific industry as a market entry point in order to develop the technology further. In part, this allows a focused area of continued R&D that may be fundable by organizations such as the NSF through their SBIR program. I chose to focus on developing a value-added substrate for growing mushrooms due to the accessibility to reach out directly to both consumers and commercial mushroom growers to build early customer relationships, and also because of the ability to start at a smaller production scale compared to other potential product offerings that could be created using the patented process (i.e. bulk natural fertilizers).

3. What does the market look like for this product?

For the consumer market, I am targeting both male and female millennial age urban dwellers, and any age/gender of gardening and/or culinary enthusiasts. There are similar “DIY mushroom kits” on the market, but many are bulky, heavy cardboard boxes that don’t look appealing on anyone’s kitchen counter. For the commercial market, I am targeting roughly 170 commercial scale specialty mushroom growers in the Midwest and Eastern region of the United States. The really cool part about this is that it makes great logistical sense. I am using spent brewer’s grains to create the mushroom substrate and there are more than 300 craft breweries that get rid of BSG in Indiana and Ohio alone. This means that production of the substrate product in Indiana is proximal to the growers I’m trying to reach, which cuts down on shipping costs for bulk products.

4. How will you sell the mushroom kits?

I will sell the kits online direct to consumers, and on the commercial side I will sell direct to the growers.

5. You were one of 3 finalists to pitch for The Startup Ladies grant. What did you do to prepare for your 5 minute pitch?

One of the most important things I needed to do in preparation for the Startup Ladies pitch was try to refine my message for the time limit and the audience. Technology commercialization and the scientific nature of the process and products I’m creating can be difficult to explain and summarize, so I wanted to find a way to convey a simple message that I am taking a waste product from one industry (craft breweries) and turning it into a value-added product for another industry (mushroom growers or DIY culinary enthusiasts/gardeners). You could say I’m creating a Circular Economy for the Circle City!

6. What is the biggest challenge in starting up your business?

The biggest challenge I face is in the handling and drying of the brewer’s spent grain at a scale large enough to do continuous product manufacturing. Unfortunately, it spoils very quickly (Which is why it is such a waste problem for the industry), so finding a way to quickly dry and move several tons of material for further processing is the biggest hurdle that I’m trying to overcome in the R&D process. The other hurdle I face is that technology commercialization is notoriously difficult to fund in the first place. Without real traction, this stage of startup is not typically a VC candidate. In addition, many Angel investors are also hesitant about early stage technologies. Finding a way to self-fund while seeking out government research grants is a delicate balance to keep things moving forward. Traditionally, many of these technologies end up in the well known “Valley of Death” for startups because they require additional funding to get the technology to full commercialization or at least in the hands of the first few paying customers.

7. What are your plans for growth over the next year?

I intend to continue to take steps in lining up partnerships for the various steps of manufacturing, meeting and building relationships with additional brewery partners, and reaching out to commercial customers interested in helping test the first samples of the mushroom substrate. This will help inform both further development of the commercial product, but also validate the success of the smaller scale consumer products without needing to set up a mycology (mushroom) lab of my own. I am also applying for the current round of NSF SBIR funding with hopes that money for R&D will help push this technology to the next level for pilot scale processing.

8. How will you integrate technology into your business?

At its core, Greater Innovations is based on commercializing technology advancements in the areas of AgTech, Green Tech and Clean Tech. However, it is my desire to incorporate a data-driven approach that could spin-off new opportunities in IoT, data analytics, and user applications (software/apps) that would be beneficial in the aforementioned areas and sustainable development in general.

9. How have The Startup Ladies helped you grow?

The Startup Ladies has provided a wealth of opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship, access to mentors, introductions to supporters and investors, and a wonderful community of like-minded people who are always available to provide advice or lend a hand. I am so grateful to be a member and thankful for Kristen’s vision in building this organization to support women in their entrepreneurial aspirations.

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