The Two Rouxs Partner for an Eco-Entrepreneurial CompetitionBy Rebecca Goldfine
The mixed group of students, industry experts, municipal officials, and interested community members gathered at Bowdoin's Roux Center for the Environment early Saturday morning, January 27, to kick off the all-day Start Summit, which The Roux Institute of Northeastern University describes as an "idea hackathon."
The Roux Institute, based in Portland, began holding these incubator programs across the state in 2022, and is planning a dozen more in 2024, inviting "curious, driven people from all over Maine" to "transform their ideas to prototypes."
While Saturday's event at Bowdoin zeroed in on how to decrease carbon emissions in the construction industry, other Start Summits focus on different challenges and industries, such as innovation in health care and the workforce. (Sign up for the newsletter to stay informed on upcoming summits.)
The winning team in each Start Summit competition receives $2,000, while the runner-up wins $1,000. (Spoiler alert: A Bowdoin employee was part of the team that won the top prize! More details below.)
The twist is that soon after arriving, participants are randomly sorted into small groups. This is part of the challenge and the potential payoff.
"The hardest part of the whole day is the teamwork. Especially at the beginning of the day, because everyone who comes here is ambitious and very smart, and we put you on a team of people you don't know who are also ambitious and really smart," said Terra Dunham, who runs the Start Summits for Roux.
"Then you just have to pick one of your ideas and move forward. You have to get to know each other and figure out what each person has in their skill set. You have to compromise, be willing to be flexible, and to change. That is really hard."
But, Dunham continued, at the end of the day, almost always, teams come together to produce a viable business concept. "It's really, really cool to see that in such a short amount of time," she said. "And what an inspiration! If you can do this much in a few hours, what if you spent another day, a week? What solutions can we come up with?"
(At least one idea generated at a Start Summit has turned into a real-world startup that is working to commercialize its seaweed-based paper products.)
Liliana Lines ’24, a Summit participant, found the teamwork to be especially rewarding. "The most valuable part of the experience for me was practicing my groupwork skills," she said.
"I also loved meeting people from the Roux Institute and the wider community of people working on climate innovation in Maine," she added. "I found out one of the participants was a professional choreographer, and I would have never known she wasn't in the climate sphere!"
At 5:00 p.m. Saturday evening, after spending eight hours huddled around tables in different parts of the Roux Center, the ten teams gathered in a large classroom to present their startup plans to a panel of three judges: architect Gunnar Hubbard (who consulted on Bowdoin's Roux Center), Paramount Planet Product founder, Ariadne Dimoula, and Amply Energy founder, Eric Fitz.
The pitches: How to decarbonize our built environment
After introducing themselves, each of the judges reiterated how important it is to curb the construction sector's CO2 pollution. The built environment generates about 42 percent of annual global CO2 emissions, and of those total emissions, operations like heating and cooling produce 27 percent annually. Materials and construction are responsible for an additional 15 percent annually, according to industry figures.
Ten Bowdoin students—Lines, Mohammed Chowdhury ’25, Ilo Holdridge ’25, Chase Lenk ’26, Ravi Mehta ’26, Kaya Patel ’26, Asher Savel ’26, Chloë Sheahan ’26, Gabe Sarno ’25, and Eden Zumbrun ’26—took part in the hackathon. Additionally, other students attended the Start Summit's Friday evening at the Portland Museum of Art, which consisted of a panel discussion about changes and innovation in the building industry.
Several students explained that they had devoted their day on Saturday to learn more about the construction industry and entrepreneurship, to network, to be inspired, and because they want to contribute to climate change solutions.
"I am interested in fighting climate change through infrastructure reform and new ideas," Savel said. "I had also never experienced an idea hackathon, and I wanted to see if I could come up with an idea that could be solid."
Lines said that as an earth and oceanographic science major, she's interested in forging a career that addresses the climate crisis. "I figured this event would be useful for networking and inspiring me to continue on my academic path," she added.
Lines's team, which included Savel and Sheahan, invented a company that adds basalt rock to roofs. Their solution to the competition's problem, they explained in a three-minute pitch, is to sequester carbon by adding basalt rock powder to rooftops. Basalt, Lines said, "is the only nonliving carbon sink."
"Basalt is an extremely common rock in the earth's crust, and is an ideal candidate for roofing because it actually weathers in a chemical process that scrubs carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in a way that has been happening for billions of years," she explained. Furthermore, basalt rock is a byproduct in mining, making it cheap and abundant.
Another team, which included Chowdhury, Patel, Holdridge, and Sarno, came up with a proposal to create customizable panels out of recycled plastic that could be quickly assembled into new housing units. Yet another group described a new company that would sell roll-up window blinds encrusted with solar panels that could passively heat rooms.
The first-place winner, Four Walls, was based on an idea introduced by Marko Melendy, Bowdoin's animal welfare and facilities manager. His teammates Ben Titcombe, Jennie Hatch, and Jaynesh Bhandari
brainstormed together to turn the concept into a "bigger, better version of itself," Melendy said.
Four Walls, which the team described as an "end-to-end platform for home maintenance focused on sustainable upgrades," would offer customers an initial home inspection and then provide a suite of services like financing options, project management, rebate information, and contractor leads. The judges appreciated that Four Walls focused on the retrofit market and making Maine's existing home stock more sustainable.
Melendy likened these proposed house inspections to the annual inspection all vehicle owners in Maine undergo each year to check things like exhaust systems, brakes, and structural integrity. The final result of the home inspection, he added, would not only benefit the homeowner—who would see a reduction in bills over time—but also local businesses, such as suppliers and builders.
He credited his teammates with creatively fleshing out a bare notion. "We had a group of people from different backgrounds—community development, construction, technology, and my biology and environmental background—and we ended up with a product that was very different than any one of us would have come up with on our own."
"This effort really demonstrated that the end idea is more dynamic and more efficient when there is diversity within the group," he added. His team is now discussing what next steps they can take to possibly advance the proto-business or policy.
The runner-up pitch was a business called Canopy Consulting, "which makes sourcing climate-smart building products easy," its founders said, partnering with mills, for instance, to sell and deliver recycled and new wood to construction companies.
Though Lines's basalt roofing idea didn't nab a prize, she said she's tempted to continue working on the business plan.
"I learned that fantastical ideas may not be that fantastical," she said. "I didn't really think my idea was that feasible, but afterward, a participant in the Summit laid out the steps of how I'd be able to make my idea a reality. That was cool to hear, and made me appreciate the summit for bringing such inspiring people to the Roux Center."
Other students said that while they would not continue developing their start-ups, they nonetheless found value in the experience. Savel said he thought the best part of the day was learning "how to take an idea from vague to extremely specific, how to really sell yourself and your ideas, and lots of patience. Lots and lots of patience."
Sheahan noted that she walked away from the event with more confidence that many climate solutions are within reach. "We already have many or all the solutions—they just need to be reworked to put people and sustainability first," she said.
Photo from Flatlander Photography.