Ozarks students finalists in Governor's Cup

Release Date: 4/12/2012

It's all about the shrilk. When Ivan Chavez and Andrea Lagos were announced finalists in this year's Donald Reynolds Governor's Cup in Little Rock, it was the result of a lot of intense work and an evolving project that began with a new form of organic plastic called shrilk and a business start-up plan to attract investors.

Ivan Chavez and Andrea Lagos were finalists in the Donald W. Reynolds Governor's Cup Business Plan Competition.

The business plan created by Ivan Chavez and Andrea Lagos was a finalist in the "Innovation" category of the Donald W. Reynolds Governor's Cup Business Plan Competition.

"It was a lot of work at the beginning," said Chavez. "We had to write a full business plan in less than two weeks, which included all the research and then writing the proposal, budget, PowerPoint presentation - in other words, the whole business plan, to present to investors to get capital to fund the company. The business plan contained elements of marketing, PR, finance, and management, in other words basically a lot of the material we've covered in our classes here. We submitted the plan at the end of February and after that we had to wait to see if we were selected as finalists for the next round. As it turned out, we were finalists for the Governor's Cup in the 'Innovation' category. The three possible categories were 'Overall Business Plan,' 'Agriculture,' and 'Innovation.'"

Chavez and Lagos were one of only three teams out of 54 that qualified in the "Innovation section."

The Donald W. Reynolds Governor's Cup business plan competition encourages students attending any Arkansas two- or four-year college or university to act on their ideas and talents "in order to produce tomorrow's businesses," as their web site describes it.. Since the competition was started in 2001, more than 1,300 students representing 22 Arkansas colleges and universities have participated.
But back to the Shrilk. "It was discovered just a few months ago at Harvard," said Chavez. "Andrea Lagos and I were just googling around when we ran across it. The material is called 'Shrilk' because it is composed of fibroin protein from silk and from chitin, which is commonly extracted from discarded shrimp shells. It's also called 'insect cuticles.'"

Chavez describes Shrilk as similar in strength and toughness to an aluminum alloy, but only half the weight. "It is biodegradable and can be produced at a very lost cost, since chitin is readily available as a shrimp waste product," he said. "It is also easily molded into complex shapes, such as tubes. By controlling the water content in the fabrication process, the researchers were even able to reproduce the wide variations in stiffness, from elasticity to rigidity. As a cheap, environmentally safe alternative to plastic, Shrilk could be used to make trash bags, packaging, and diapers that degrade quickly. As an exceptionally strong, biocompatible material, it could be used to suture wounds that bear high loads, such as in hernia repair, or as a scaffold for tissue regeneration. As part of decomposition it can be used as a fertilizer."

This latest presentation by the two students was not, however, their first attempt. "I think the single most important thing we did that made us finalists this time was that we had put a lot of effort into evolving the project," Chavez said. "We had presented it at two previous competitions. The first time was a Walmart-sponsored competition called Walmart Better Living Business Plan Challenge, which took place at University of Missouri in Columbia. We competed against Ph.D. students the first time - we were the only undergrad school that was there. The judges were really tough because it was our first time and we had some uncertainly. But that helped us improve for the second competition, which was called an 'elevator pitch.' That was organized by Centuria Ventures, in Fort Smith. An 'elevator pitch' is a short summary used to quickly and simply define a product, service, or organization and its value proposition, which is part of a business strategy. The name 'elevator pitch' reflects the idea that it should be possible to deliver the summary in the time span of an elevator ride, or approximately thirty seconds to two minutes."

In their case, the team had one minute to lay out the entire business plan. "It's really tough," said Chavez. "A full 30 pages of business plan in one minute. There's a clock ticking down the time on the wall right in front of you, too! But you have to get it all in there in one minute. Those two competitions helped enormously to prepare us for this one, as results have shown."

Both students described the most difficult part of the project initially as finding the basic information they needed because of the recent discovery of the product. "Actually," said Chavez, "it was due to the help of Patrick Morgan and Stuart Stelzer at our library that we were able to accomplish our project. The article that contained all the information we needed for the paper was only available four places in total. We asked for help and it took a little while, but they came through."

Andrea Lagos agreed, adding, "I gained a lot of experience of the real professional business world through our Shrilk project because we interacted not only with judges, but also with real investors who were interested in our ideas and were willing to invest in us and our companies. In addition to both the professional and academic learning involved, in the course we took that most directly impacted this project, our 'Business Plan' class, I got to visit different places, meet different people, and learn a little more about life that you can't learn from books. And it is all paying off."