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Entrepreneurs making a difference

January 5, 2021

Private donations and corporate partnerships help make it possible for local startups to succeed

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2021 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. 

It’s one thing to create a good idea, but it’s a challenge to turn that idea into a profitable and sustainable product or service. Having access to mentoring, education and financial support greatly increases the odds of success.

Community members and ASU alumni, students and faculty can take advantage of several entrepreneurial resources through the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, from workshops to mentoring to funding. Much of the funding is awarded through biannual Demo Day competitions where ventures deliver pitches as they compete for hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

To date, more than 600 entrepreneur teams are impacting the world with the support and financial backing of ASU and philanthropists. Here are just a few powerful examples. 

Freda Sarfo: A fruit offers opportunity in Ghana 

While tropical almonds (known locally as Abrofo Nkate) have long been consumed as a local sweet in Ghana, they haven’t always been viewed as a source of economic prosperity. After learning from a horticultural engineer about the promising yet undervalued benefits of the tree, Ghana-born Freda Sarfo dug deeper. She learned the fruits have a high-quality cosmetic oil, more protein than chicken and more fiber than oats.

“We started doing more research into the nutritional composition of the tropical almond, how it benefits the body,” Sarfo said. “And there weren’t any products on the market with it.” 

Sarfo, a master’s degree student in global logistics and a Mastercard Foundation Scholar, applied for Venture Devils and won $4,000 in 2019. She says that her study of supply chain and logistics has helped her in establishing Tropical Almond. 

Tropical Almond

Freda Sarfo started Tropical Almond after winning seed funding from Venture Devils.

“In our business strategy, because there are no established tropical almond farms, we source from tropical almond trees in communities and homes from different regions across Ghana. Without these trees, our business wouldn’t be. My knowledge and experience from ASU has helped me to design and manage our diverse supply chain effectively and efficiently. I occasionally went to Dr. Dale Rogers with questions on Tropical Almond’s supply chain, and he was always happy to assist with his advice and suggestions.”

In establishing Tropical Almond, she used the funds to travel back to Ghana, educate people on the trees’ benefits and create a business plan. She built a small processing facility and now pays women to collect and crack the fallen nuts then cold press them to retrieve the oil. The company also makes high-protein snacks using the almonds. Tropical Almond currently works with about 60 women, mostly single mothers. It has significantly helped during the pandemic as many of these women lost other odd jobs. 

Through outreach, the Tropical Almond team also has saved more than 100 trees that would have been cut down. In addition, for every bottle of almond oil sold at the online store, the company donates a bag of high-protein snacks to hungry children.

“Our tactic was to help these mothers find social income, reliable income so they can take care of their children and families,” Sarfo said. 

Shruti Gurudanti and Mayank Mishra: Addressing loneliness among seniors

Even before the pandemic, loneliness was a growing problem among seniors. It has worsened, with more than half of adults ages 50 to 80 reporting feeling isolated, according to a June 2020 University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging.

Years ago after witnessing a loved one’s struggle, Shruti Gurudanti sought ways to address social isolation. In 2018, she co-founded televëda with Mayank Mishra. Soon after, at a community networking event, Mishra met Kristin Slice, the senior program manager for Peoria Forward, an Edson E+I Institute program in partnership with the city of Peoria for community members. The support helped the co-founders further develop televëda, which acts like a virtual senior community center and addresses senior isolation using easy-to-use technology, including live interactive classes and games, as well as streaming events. Participants can see the instructor, talk to other participants and compete. Examples include multiplayer bingo, interactive fitness classes, live music from the Chandler Symphony Orchestra and other musicians, and tailored interactive education classes. All of this helps older adults build and maintain friendships and feel more engaged and satisfied with life.

Mayank Mishra and Shruti Gurudanti

Mayank Mishra and Shruti Gurudanti at a livestream event for their company that helps reduce senior isolation.

Since its founding, televëda has created virtual senior communities that have helped more than 1,500 users, including seniors in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and their homes. 

Recently, Gurudanti heard from a widower who uses the platform to socialize. “He keeps coming back to these classes. What’s beautiful is that he doesn’t feel like he’s coming to a support group. For me, that’s a success,” Gurudanti said.

In May 2020, at the Greater Phoenix Tech Challenge, the company won a $50,000 grant from the Pakis Center for Business Philanthropy at the Arizona Community Foundation. Televëda will use the funds to expand from its current seven employees. 

“Our goal is to be a widespread virtual recreation center to reduce social isolation, and so people don’t have to worry about feeling lonely again,” Gurudanti said.

Dylan Lang: Improving communication for people with hearing loss

Over the course of three years between high school and college, ASU computer science senior Dylan Lang lost nearly 90% of his hearing because of a condition called profound bilateral hearing loss. While learning to deal with his ailment, Lang developed an interest in computer science and artificial intelligence and applied that knowledge to developing a smartphone app to help people with hearing loss. In the app, which Lang expects to make public in a few years, the webcam views a person’s hand motions, then AI converts that information to text. In reverse, a person speaks, then AI makes the hand motions on the screen.

“I’ve seen how the lack of resources impacts the deaf community,” Lang said. “There’s often a communication barrier, and (the deaf) have to communicate with notes or notepads. Interpreters aren’t always around.”

Dylan Lang

Dylan Lang aims to improve communication for people with hearing loss; he is shown here against a green screen capturing movements for an avatar.



Lang, who is president of the Deaf Devils student organization, demonstrated the concept at the first Demo Day in 2018 and won $35,000 to turn the idea into a company named EqualComm. Lang is testing the machine learning output and credits the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneur and Innovation Institute and Brent Sebold, a lecturer and administrator of entrepreneurship and innovation programs, for helping him fine-tune the concept. 

“I think the app can empower (deaf) individuals to bridge the communication gap when they are out in the community,” Lang said. 

Ryan Stoll: Reducing anxiety in children

While working on his PhD in clinical psychology at ASU, Ryan Stoll discovered in one-on-one sessions he facilitated that many people struggle with similar anxiety issues. He thought that maybe there was a way to proactively help people using evidence-based tactics. 

With years of research around anxiety at the Courage Lab at the ASU Department of Psychology, combined with assistance through ASU’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, in 2017 Stoll came up with a six-lesson game-based anxiety prevention program for children called Compass for Courage

Ryan Stoll

Ryan Stoll delivering a five-minute pitch at a Demo Day competition.

After going through the classes and mentorship offered by the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute at ASU’s program Venture Devils and refining his idea, Stoll created and mastered a five-minute “Shark Tank”-like pitch for Demo Day, which landed Compass $34,500 in funding in 2017 from the Changemaker Challenge and the Edson Student Entrepreneurship Initiative.

“It enabled me to create a brand around the science, design the program and order the first 100 kits,” Stoll said. “The funding and ability to use the ASU platform have opened new opportunities for the business.”  

The project received another $30,000 the following year during Demo Day and has so far trained counselors in 55 Arizona schools and helps about 350 students each year. With ASU’s help, Stoll has been able to conduct research that shows improvements in patients’ emotional awareness and their ability to gain more confidence in stressful situations because of Compass for Courage.

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Watch entrepreneurial Sun Devils 

Learn more about the establishment of the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute and hear from startup founders from five ventures about their journeys: EqualComm, Phoenix Coqui, Pura Vida Grinds, Navi Concierge Nurses and NeoLight.

Get help with your innovative idea

Have a new product, service, process or business idea? Join a comprehensive ecosystem that includes support, funding sources, mentors, innovation spaces, academic courses and community programs that help all entrepreneurs thrive. This includes the new Venture Devils+ for winners of seed funding at a Demo Day competition, which provides the ability to apply for additional mentoring over the course of a semester.

Top photo: Freda Sarfo started her business in her kitchen, formulating products made from tropical almonds found on ornamental trees in her native Ghana.  

Story by Craig Guillot. He is a business journalist whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Chief Executive and Entrepreneur magazines.

Because of you, a future full of promise: Explore how ASU supporters’ generosity during Campaign ASU 2020 has powered many breakthroughs and successes, and laid the groundwork for a future full of possibilities.

 
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Ranging change

January 5, 2021

An adjustment to grazing patterns can provide huge returns, both to farmers and the environment, says ASU documentarian

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2021 issue of ASU Thrive magazine. 

If there were ways to produce food with improved environmental outcomes, it would be worth doing everything possible, from education to incentives, to help farmers adopt the methods.

That’s the aim of Peter Byck, professor of practice in the College of Global Futures’ School of Sustainability. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Byck joined the faculty in 2013 after his climate change solutions film “Carbon Nation” caught the school’s attention. With a dual appointment in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, he teaches students to make short documentaries about sustainability. 

As Byck showed “Carbon Nation” around the world over the years, one aspect of climate change that people wanted to talk about again and again was soil health. Many agricultural practices damage soil and release stored carbon, but evidence suggests that alternative practices, broadly known as regenerative agriculture, can repair and sequester carbon. A strong scientific consensus has emerged that not only must new emissions be curtailed, but current concentrations should be stored underground, where it can’t warm the climate or damage ocean habitats.

Regenerative agriculture to improve soil, Byck says, “just kept coming up.”

With a grant from the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service at ASU, Byck brought together scientists to design a research project to compare adaptive multi-paddock grazing with conventional methods. He has since produced 10 short films on AMP grazing, collectively called “Carbon Cowboys.” 

Even as the goal was initially to help solve climate change, Byck said, “We think we’ve found a way to increase ranchers’ profitability.” That was key to getting stakeholder participation in parts of the country that have not been receptive to global warming messaging. “When we talk to farmers, it’s, ‘We’ll show you the data and you can ask any question. And the science will guide us.’”

Inspired by bison grazing patterns

For tens of thousands of years, as many as 50 million bison roamed the Great Plains. Herds would graze a small area, move on to a neighboring or nearby pasture and repeat — sometimes not returning to the same grasses for months or years. Their hooves trampled grass, helping the soil hold water by protecting it from evaporation while keeping the ground cool and providing habitat for other animals. Bison also kicked up dirt, loosening seeds and enabling them to germinate. Their excrement fertilized soil. And their continual departure to new pastures gave land time to recover. There’s evidence from researchers in Yellowstone National Park that bison in the wild still naturally graze in a way that provides these benefits.

Livestock have since overwhelmingly replaced the bison, but cattle typically aren’t managed in a way that’s healthy for the soil, leading to overgrazing and putting the Great Plains at high risk for desertification. 

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Conversely, AMP grazing mimics bison’s activity to improve soil health. Ecosystems evolve in response to the conditions they are exposed to, and when something closer to the historical norm is recreated through regenerative grazing, the soil provides more, and more diverse, forage. More forage allows the soil to sequester more carbon, while retaining more water and preventing pollutants from leeching into water supplies and aquatic habitat. Biodiversity also reduces topsoil erosion. The bison did it all without conventional ranching’s chemical fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation or antibiotics. 

Allen Williams is a former faculty member at Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State, and a sixth-generation rancher featured in the “Carbon Cowboys” series. “In our research, we started to see that we were making our soils, our plants and our animals more reliant on all of these inputs,” he said. “And as soil health was going downhill, ecosystem health was going downhill and animal health was going downhill.” 

The solution Williams arrived at, and which he has since taught to thousands of ranchers who together manage more than 1 million acres, is AMP grazing. Ranches are divided into small paddocks, some as small as a half-acre. Cattle are packed densely into one paddock at a time and allowed to graze intensively. At least once a day they are sent into a new field, and the process repeats. 

On an AMP ranch of 5,000 acres, a paddock might see fewer than 35 days of grazing over a dozen years. The rest of the time, it’s growing back. Plant species that take longer to grow get a chance; some of these may be more drought-tolerant. Some are legumes, which fix nitrogen in the soil, reducing the need for fertilizer. And, says Williams, “Soil that functions properly, that has high microbial or biological activity, confers a much higher level of disease and pest resistance.” This results in less need for chemical pollutants like pesticides and fungicides. 

“Why do I want to spend thousands of dollars on synthetic fertilizer when I can grow these crops for the cost of the seed, and they’ll make nitrogen for me, and livestock will come around and eat these plants and convert it to dollars?” said North Dakota rancher Gabe Brown in “Soil Carbon Cowboys.” 

Offsetting carbon emissions 

With Earth’s population estimated to exceed 9.5 billion by 2050, the need to keep warming below a certain level to preserve a livable world and to feed people without increasing greenhouse gas emissions will be crucial. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that livestock are responsible for almost 15% of humanity’s carbon output, with beef cattle accounting for 42% of that amount.

“If you change about 25% of American land that’s in grazing right now, with that 3 tons per hectare per year, you draw down a billion tons of carbon dioxide annually,” Byck said. That’s about a fifth of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. “If all U.S. farmers change to this method of grazing, it can make a huge impact.” 

That might be one reason companies like agribusiness giant Cargill are interested. In September, it joined with the World Wildlife Fund and other companies to collectively provide $6 million to train ranchers in more-sustainable grazing practices. It’s also one reason McDonald’s is the largest funder of Byck’s research project.

Byck says the company has realized “their supply chain is not resilient when you’re dealing with climate change, and degraded, unhealthy soils. We’re not afraid of working with big companies — I like to figure out ways to use these giant levers to get change.” The films, in turn, serve as a way to raise money for more research from companies with a stake in ranching, carbon mitigation or both.

“It works every time, in every environment, on every continent, and in every climate. I’ve never seen anything that has this type of impact.” 

—  Allen Williams, rancher-scientist

The films also draw funding from individuals. Helping to fund the project are ASU supporters Don and Bill Budinger, founders of the Rodel Foundation of Arizona; longtime supporters of Byck’s work, Paula and Jim Crown; and Byck’s friend from childhood, Stuart Brown, and his wife, Joanna. 

A question from critics of AMP is whether the practice helps reduce methane, which is 25 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas; half of cattle’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the methane cattle burp out, according to the FAO. But then, maybe regenerative grazing doesn’t have to solve for methane, as certain supplements may reduce cattle’s methane emissions.

AMP grazing seeks to improve degraded soil, not convert forests or wild grasslands to rangeland. These natural areas are absorbing carbon — with each 120-year-old forest sequestering about 4 tons per hectare per year and undisturbed grasslands and riparian areas perhaps sequestering even more — and so need to be left undisturbed so they can keep on doing that, while also providing critical habitats for thousands of species. 

Byck is excited for the beneficial changes AMP is having and is leading a research project involving eight universities comparing AMP with conventional grazing. “We saw the farmers practicing AMP having tremendous successes, but there was very little in the scientific literature on AMP grazing. So with the support of McDonald’s, Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, ExxonMobil, Wrangler, Timberland and Cargill, our research began in 2018, and we will begin submitting manuscripts for peer-review in 2021.” Byck is also producing a new documentary on this research.

The ranchers featured in Byck’s films who’ve adopted AMP are convinced.

Mississippi rancher-scientist Allen Williams said, “If the principles of soil health and the rules of adaptive stewardship are implemented, it works every time, in every environment, on every continent, and in every climate. I’ve never seen anything that has this type of impact.”

Top photo: Will Harris, a fourth-generation cattleman, practices adaptive multi-paddock grazing at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia. Regenerative farming methods like AMP are ranked No. 9 on a list of the 80 most effective ways to counteract methane emissions and sequester carbon by Project Drawdown, a nonprofit coalition identifying ways to fight climate change.

Story by Paul Tullis. Photos by Johnathon Kelso

Because of you, a future full of promise: Explore how ASU supporters’ generosity during Campaign ASU 2020 has powered many breakthroughs and successes, and laid the groundwork for a future full of possibilities.

Senior Editor , ASU Now

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