Since 1990, the Collegiate Inventors Competition® (CIC) has set the stage for young innovators to advance their inventions through national exposure and expert mentorship from National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductees. Presented every year in partnership with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), graduate and undergraduate student inventors present their work to a panel of Judges and compete for cash prizes and patent acceleration.
We recently had the privilege of speaking with 2016 CIC Winners Payam Pourtaheri and Ameer Shakeel, now successful founders and leaders of a business developed around the invention they presented at the competition. As they continue to develop biological-based solutions in agriculture, they are making impressive advances in groundbreaking technologies while sharing a vision for creating good in the world.
World-Changing Agricultural Ingenuity
Pourtaheri and Shakeel met in their final year as biomedical engineering students at the University of Virginia (UVA). Their idea, which would go on to give them a winning title at CIC and become the foundation for their company, had a humble beginning here.
“It started as a research project that aligned with something we both really cared about, being from the developing part of the world,” Shakeel shared in an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “Seeing the chemical use there, we were very familiar with seeing the underprivileged class using chemicals in farming and causing detrimental health effects.”
They began their research in the emerging field of synthetic biology, studying how it could be applied to agriculture and specifically targeting pesticides. From their exploration evolved an ingenious strategy of using biological particles to speed up the degradation of pesticides. Using these naturally derived “bioparticles,” they discovered a method to break down pesticides on crops in just hours, opposed to days or weeks.
The impact of this discovery was huge. Pest control could maintain its place in food production, but by eliminating pesticides from plant surfaces more quickly, crops could be harvested safely in a significantly shorter amount of time, leading to reduced crop loss and fewer pesticides in the environment.
“That’s when we realized that this was much more than a research project. This is actually something that can have real impact in peoples’ lives,” Shakeel said.
In their research, they began to call their bioparticles “AgroSpheres,” a name that would prove to stand the test of time.
AgroSpheres Takes Off at CIC
When Pourtaheri and Shakeel brought their invention to CIC in 2016, they were eager to present their ideas at the USPTO and proudly represent UVA. For their revolutionary research and invention, they won first place in the Undergraduate category, earning a gold medal and a $10,000 prize.
“Bringing home the gold medal gave us confidence in what we were building, in addition to seeing so many accomplished inventors excited about it too,” said Pourtaheri. “At the stage we were in, you don’t really know if what you’re building is going to have the impact you think it will. So all of those factors were really motivating.”
As a unique opportunity presented to all CIC participants, Pourtaheri and Shakeel received expert guidance from some of the world’s greatest innovators — National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees.
When asked about connecting with insightful inventors at the competition, Pourtaheri recalled meeting National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductee and 2016 CIC Judge C. Kumar N. Patel, inventor of the carbon dioxide laser. “He talked about the personal aspects of life, and how important that is to the entrepreneurial journey,” Pourtaheri explained. “He said that as an entrepreneur, you are going to have to think through your decisions, what you’re building and where you’re headed as a person. He was raw and transparent, and it was very inspiring to us.”
Paving the Path for Success
After finding success and making valuable connections at CIC, Pourtaheri and Shakeel realized just how monumental their work had been up to this point, and how impactful it could be when applied in the world. This experience led them to pivot from their original career plans to take on their own entrepreneurial journey.
“We significantly changed our career trajectories and became fully committed to building accessible technology that has benefits where we live, in a very privileged country, but also in the underprivileged parts of the world where we belong too,” said Shakeel. “It’s been a great privilege for us to work in this field where we actually see the impact and believe in the work we’re doing.”
Since 2016, Pourtaheri and Shakeel have grown their AgroSpheres business to nearly 30 employees, crediting much of their initial successes to three employees in particular — Zachery Davis, Sepehr Zomorodi and Joseph T. Frank, classmates they recruited from UVA. “Collaboration is of paramount importance in your own technology, impacting society in any meaningful way,” advised Shakeel. Feeling strongly about the community in which they got their start and received so much support, they put down roots in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Believe in the value of your ideas. Be prepared to communicate your innovation effectively. Use the opportunity to learn. Embrace the journey.
Each day, Pourtaheri and Shakeel work toward becoming leaders in shifting current agricultural practices to more sustainable teachings, taking a practical approach to guiding farmers toward a more sustainable future.
When it comes to giving advice to future CIC participants, their counsel is simple: “Believe in the value of your ideas. Be prepared to communicate your innovation effectively. Use the opportunity to learn. Embrace the journey.”
Advance Your Invention at CIC
Do you or a college student you know have a unique invention and an innovative spirit? Learn more about CIC today!