ASU entrepreneurs benefit Balkan businesses

Team led by electrical engineering faculty leads effort to ignite small-business growth in Eastern Europe

September 18, 2023

Having grown up in Kosovo, Visar Berisha is driven to help showcase innovation in the Balkans to the rest of the world. He recently got the opportunity to do just that through the U.S. Department of State’s Global Innovation through Science and Technology, or GIST, initiative.

“The development and growth of the Balkans region has always been close to my heart,” says Berisha, a professor of electrical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University with a joint appointment in ASU’s College of Health Solutions. “When the Melikian Center at ASU introduced me to the U.S. State Department’s GIST Innovates the Balkans program, it resonated with me, as it felt like an opportunity to make a difference in a region that is very special to me.” ASU Professor Visar Berisha gives a presentation to participants in a classroom. Visar Berisha, a professor of electrical engineering with a joint appointment in ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and College of Health Solutions, instructs participants in the GIST Innovates the Balkans program. Photo courtesy of Innovation Centre Kosovo Download Full Image

With assistance from the Melikian Center and ASU’s J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute, Berisha’s proposal resulted in GIST Initiative funding powering a two-year program with multiple cohorts of select companies based in the Balkans, during which participants learn how to expand their offerings to the U.S. market.

The program’s first cohort consists of 13 companies taking part over the course of 10 weeks between July and October. Participants take part in training sessions in which they learn from the experiences of ASU faculty entrepreneurs from the Fulton Schools and beyond. They also get mentorship and networking opportunities with ASU-affiliated entrepreneurs matched to their industries, and they conduct interviews with prospective customers. Some participants will also be selected to participate in ASU’s Venture Devils pitch competition.

Designing an international entrepreneurship education program

Berisha took the lead on running GIST Innovates the Balkans with his co-principal investigator Zachary Holman, a professor of electrical engineering and Fulton Schools vice dean for research and innovation.

Berisha and Holman have entrepreneurial experience running startup companies; Berisha co-founded digital health company Aural Analytics, and Holman is a co-founder of coating company Swift Coat and solar technology businesses Beyond Silicon and SunFlex Solar.

Holman and Berisha designed the program with Eusebio Scornavacca, professor and interim director of ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, who also serves as a professor in the Thunderbird School of Global Management, and Ji Mi Choi, executive director of the National Science Foundation-funded I-Corps Hub: Desert and Pacific Region, which ASU leads.

They modeled the GIST Innovates the Balkans curriculum after the NSF’s Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, which helps academic researchers in science and engineering move projects into the marketplace. Unlike I-Corps, GIST Innovates the Balkans includes startups from a wider variety of industries beyond science and engineering that didn’t all begin in academic settings.

Regional collaborator and entrepreneurship organization Innovation Centre Kosovo helped tailor the curriculum to benefit participating startups as much as possible. The center also helped select the participants from four countries in the region: Kosovo, North Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia. Additionally, Innovation Centre Kosovo handled logistics for the program and hosted in-person entrepreneurship training sessions.

Denise McKenzie, an academic associate at ASU’s College of Health Solutions, serves as lead instructor for GIST Innovates the Balkans. Also an instructor for I-Corps, she led the in-person sessions in Kosovo for a week in July with assistance from Holman and Berisha, after which participants learned from weekly online sessions.

“We’re teaching a process of how you come up with solutions based on who your customer is,” McKenzie says. “This is something they can use for this product or service, but also in the future. It’s really wash, rinse and repeat.”

Understanding U.S. customers’ needs and learning from entrepreneurs’ experiences

Participating startups include companies in a diverse array of industries, such as AI speech-to-sign-language translator SignAvatar, sustainable hat brand Mirjana Josifoska and marketing platform the Brand Pack. These companies are paired with ASU-affiliated mentors who help participants find potential customers with whom they will conduct about 40 interviews per company.

After the interviews are completed, the mentors help participants analyze the information they’ve gleaned and determine what changes need to be made to their products or services.

“By the program’s conclusion, participating teams will accumulate the evidence needed to confirm or refute product-market fit,” Berisha says. “This insight will help them to construct a data-driven business model and craft a compelling pitch.”

Participating startup teams are in various stages of development, including those with some market share in the U.S. and others investigating whether expansion is worthwhile. One of these teams is Brummell, which invented a blazer jacket engineered to maintain a professional, suit-like look while meeting strict motorcycle gear safety standards through the use of Kevlar.

Nina Levic, CEO and co-founder of Brummell, says the experience has been beneficial for the opportunity to learn from the ASU entrepreneurs about their own experiences running companies and diving deep into their customers’ needs.

“This program has been truly valuable for us, as it has allowed us to extensively explore our customer segment, acquire fresh insights and share experiences with fellow entrepreneurs,” Levic says. “It’s been a great experience for us, and we look forward to witnessing the emergence of similar programs like this within the Western Balkans region.”

Looking to the future, Berisha is investigating making the program self-sustaining through collaborations between ASU and local institutions, possibly through ASU’s Global University Partnerships. He sees the program as helping people see the Balkans in a positive light.

“While much of the world might primarily associate the region with its past conflicts, my experiences in regular visits there paint a different picture,” Berisha says.

“This initiative represents a bridge connecting the untapped potential of the area with the tools, knowledge and opportunities in the U.S. to make a meaningful, sustainable impact. Introducing these ventures to a wider audience allows us to present the Balkans in a fresh light, highlighting innovation and hopefully promoting a shift in attitudes about the region.”

TJ Triolo

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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New asphalt binder alternative is less toxic, more sustainable than conventional blend

September 18, 2023

Bio-based patch from ASU will lead to safer travels and recreation

Asphalt is primarily known for use in roadways, but it's also used to pave playgrounds, bicycle paths, running tracks and tennis and basketball courts — all platforms for activities where breathing toxic fumes can be dangerous. Outdoor use on driveways, rooftops and parking lots, especially in the Arizona sun, also can lead to toxic fume exposure.

A team from Arizona State University, led by Associate Professor Ellie Fini in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment (SSEBE), has developed AirDuo, a new, patent-pending asphalt binder that not only diminishes toxic fumes of the overall asphalt-surfaced area, but also increases sustainability. 

But perhaps most importantly for Fini, it reduces health hazards for those exposed to asphalt-surfaced areas, especially for those performing the installation.

AirDuo's first local trial was initiated in late August as a patch in ASU's Gammage Auditorium parking lot. Frank Castro, associate director of Facility Maintenance, helped get the research out of the lab and into the parkig lot, facilitating the lab-to-market transition. On the morning of the install, the Parking and Transit Services team, led by Assistant Manager David Triana, completed the patchwork in a few hours.

Attendees of a theater production at Gammage the same night gave the patch a workout as they arrived and departed, and Castro reported to Fini the next day that the patch had “held up great.”

Fini envisions the new low-carbon, bio-based binder will ultimately be used for all asphalt paving products, not just patches.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration notes that about a half-million workers annually are exposed to fumes from asphalt, with health effects that include headache, skin rash, fatigue, throat and eye irritation, cough and skin cancer.

Asphalt binder is the glue that holds together the stones, sand, gravel and other aggregates in asphalt pavements. The AirDuo binding mixture is composed of low-carbon, bio-based materials that are an alternative to more toxic petroleum products, also known as bitumen. Moreover, AirDuo acts as a toxicity filter for the overall product.

After the traditional blend of aggregates and binder is laid on the roadways, the stress from heat, sun, weather and traffic causes the release of breakdown products — molecules that vaporize — some of which are odorous, highly toxic or both.

“We breathe 11,000 liters of air per day,” Fini said. “But our nose isn’t smart enough to know when the air may be dangerous for our health. That new-car smell people like? That may not be good for your lungs. We run away from a smelly trash can, but the pleasant smell or fumes from certain materials can be far more toxic.”

Fini and Judith Klein-Seetharaman, a professor in both ASU’s College of Health Solutions and School of Molecular Sciences, collaborated to review literature about the health effects of various asphalt mixtures and mapped the effects on a network of biomarkers. Citing specific contaminants present in asphalt, the team discovered that all are not created equal and that different formulas have different levels of toxicity — the majority of which have not been studied comprehensively.

According to Klein-Seetharaman, there have not been sufficient studies of the long-term effects of asphalt-related toxins on the body.

“To give justice to the complexity of the problem, we need a systems-level view of the interactions between asphalt fume components and their biological targets,” Klein-Seetharaman said. "There are thousands of molecules present in asphalt, as well as thousands of biomolecular targets inside the human body that can bind to these molecules and respond to their presence with downstream biological effects, some of which can lead to adverse health outcomes.”

Fini has conducted ongoing research to investigate alternative asphalt binders, including a study on how iron-rich biochar absorbs volatile organic compounds from asphalt surfaces, and how it is both an eco-friendly and cost-effective alternative to bitumen components.

“When we use algae to make AirDuo, as we did from last year’s November harvest from ASU’s Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI), it can be carbon negative,” said Fini, who collaborated on the algal components of the project with Peter Lammers, a research professor in SSEBE; Taylor Weiss, a Polytechnic School assistant professor; and Shuguang Deng, a professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy (SEMTE).

“The use of algae in the AirDuo binder provides a critically important environmental benefit,” Lammers said. “As algal photosynthesis removes carbon dioxide from the air, the AirDuo manufacturing process retains that carbon in an improved asphalt product relative to petroleum-derived binders.” 

“We plan to scale up the process by growing algae on wastewater, thus providing an additional ecosystem service," he said of future plans for substituting algae for petroleum products in other roadway projects.

Other bio-based materials the team has used include biochar from fire-reduction efforts in California and northern Arizona. Process sustainability depends on the feedstock sourcing and, in the case of AirDuo, the use of biomass waste from forest residue, according to Fini.

“This promotes resource conservation and waste valorization, as well as enhances public health and safety — all while providing a more sustainable pavement material.”

SSEBE Professor Mahour Parast oversaw sourcing and supply chain to enable scale-up for AirDuo. DPE Materials, the team’s partner based in Yuma, brought 10, 40-pound bags of AP1 (AirDuo Paving) for the patch at Gammage.

“AirDuo represents a complete sustainability package,” Fini explained. “We are using biomass as our feedstock — it has already pulled CO2 from the air prior to harvesting. The AP1 helps create a sustainable built environment and provides reduced health risks to both asphalt workers and those using asphalt-surfaced areas.”

Fini’s lab studies showed a nearly 70% reduction in emission when AirDuo was used. While not a one-to-one translation to the field, according to Fini, it clearly illustrates toxic fume reduction. The mix also had notably less smell than any other mix made in the plant. 

The research on bitumen asphalt binder alternatives began with a 2019 grant from the National Science Foundation on algae-derived products. A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture with a focus on emission reduction and environmental health supported the research and also helped with the lab-to-market transition.

“Our next steps are larger projects on the ASU campus, and then perhaps in Flagstaff and Tucson. Our team invites other states and institutions to join the AP1 (AirDuo Paving) campaign and test it on their sites, too,” Fini said.

But Fini and her team are delighted ASU is leading the effort. 

“It is an Arizona-born technology inspired by Arizona’s sun and heat,” Fini said. “Arizona is ideal for growing our feedstock algae, and also a great testbed for AirDuo. With 320 days of sun in the Valley, the smell of asphalt-surfaced areas never stops.

“You can verify this the next time you get out of your car in an open parking lot in summer.”

SSEBE students and postdocs engaged with AirDuo research include Sand A A Aldagari, Abdullah Aloraini, Mohammadjavad Kazemi, Anna Melis, Masoumeh Mousavi, Albert Hung and Farideh Pahlavan.

Top photo: ASU’s Ellie Fini surveys the ASU Gammage Auditorium parking lot site where the first trial of AirDuo, a low-carbon asphalt binder, was used for a recent patch. AirDuo has the potential to be used for many asphalt paving processes, not just patches. Photo by Bobbi Ramirez/ASU