Launching a Startup
Recent UI grads co-found company based on university research, class project
By Tara Roberts
Two years ago, Marshall Piatt and Nick Lodato were University of Idaho juniors looking for a good idea to enter in the College of Business’ annual business plan competition.
Now, they’re vice presidents of a company the contest helped them launch.
Piatt and Lodato co-founded BioCement Technologies, Inc., based on their 2012-13 project for the Vandal Innovation and Enterprise Works – or VIEW – Business Plan Competition. Two other members of their VIEW team, John Maxwell and Michael Hungerford, also continue to work with BioCement in an advisory capacity.
BioCement is a soil-engineering technology that uses naturally occurring microbes to create calcium-carbonate networks that have many uses, including preventing erosion, protecting foundations in the event of natural disasters and sequestering hazardous materials.
BioCement was developed in 2009 by UI researchers, including Malcolm Burbank, who now serves as BioCement Technologies’ chief science officer. Piatt and Lodato connected with the project after looking through the UI Office of Technology Transfer’s database of licensable technologies.
Piatt and Lodato’s team won first place in the VIEW pitch and business plan competitions, then took second in the Inland Northwest Business Plan Competition.
They had other job offers as they approached graduation in spring 2014, but decided to see their project through. They incorporated, brought on CEO David Weld, and are now looking to launch BioCement’s first commercial uses this year.
The two credit their professors and UI’s business curriculum for preparing them to step out into the world as small-business owners and entrepreneurs.
“They’ve done a good job of encouraging us and supporting us and connecting us to the right people,” Lodato says. “They helped me realize that I could go to the next level.”
Lodato and Piatt are now focused on finding investors and commercial opportunities for BioCement, as well as continuing their company’s central mission of research and development.
In addition to receiving support from local entities such as the Latah Economic Development Council and the Palouse Knowledge Corridor, BioCement Technologies has formed a successful partnership with Northwest energy giant Avista.
“It’s humbling to see how many people in the Inland Northwest area want to see us succeed,” Lodato says. “We want Idaho to be able to brag about what they helped start.”
Avista first became interested in the technology in 2011, when a storm and high winds caused power poles to lift out of the ground. The company now supports BioCement Technologies’ ongoing research, as well as professional development opportunities for its young founders.
“First and foremost, we like to partner and support the university on these real-world applications. BioCement was a great example of proposing a solution to some of the challenges that we face as a utility,” says Paul Kimmell, Avista’s regional business manager for the Palouse.
Avista also likes to invest in small businesses – like BioCement – in the areas it serves, Kimmell says.
“Supporting that entrepreneurial spirit is something that’s really special and near and dear to us,” he says. “These young bright business minds need some help along.”
Other supporters of the BioCement technology and company include the Idaho Department of Commerce’s Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission, which awarded a $114,000 grant to study the commercial viability of BioCement for road stabilization, dust mitigation and erosion control.
BioCement recently received a highly competitive National Institutes of Health small-business grant to test the technology’s ability to “lock up” heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, which can dangerously contaminate soil.
Alongside running their company, Lodato and Piatt also take time to give back to the university and the College of Business – as well as encourage other students to take the same path they have.
“There are a lot of cool things that happen at this university,” Piatt says. “There’s a lot of cool science, and there are a lot of talented students who want to help the scientists.”