Two UG students win national energy prize with their plan for artificial kelp forests

With mutual interests in entrepreneurship and sustainability, Beck and Jayasundera teamed up to further their knowledge, and earned $25K in the process.
Two students holding a mock check for $22,000
Jessica Beck (left) and Samantha Jayasundera accept their honorary check after the EnergyTech University Prize competition.

Combining their interests in entrepreneurship and sustainability, two undergraduate students in the College of Engineering, Jessica Beck and Samantha Jayasundera, created a business plan for a company selling artificial kelp forests. The technology would potentially benefit communities that live within 50 miles of a coast, which amounts to 50% of the nation’s population. The students’ successful pitches earned them $25K in prize money in the EnergyTech University Prize 2024 competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Technology Transitions (DoE OTT).

They called their proposed company KelpNext.

Graphic depicting artificial kelp forests.
Depiction of artificial kelp forests. Image credit: Dr. Nicole Mendoza, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)

Kelp is a type of seaweed that grows in both freshwater and saltwater. Natural kelp forests grow relatively close to shore in “dense groupings much like a forest on land.” An artificial kelp forest would be manufactured and placed in similar locations to mimic some of the non-nutritional benefits of their natural counterparts. For example, an artificial kelp forest can trap nutrients, or build up sediment where natural kelp forests or reefs have been damaged.

It can also help reduce the strength of waves in stormy conditions – which is the primary impact the team focused on for the competition.

Marine energy is such an untapped resource – there’s so much potential.

Samantha Jayasundera

“We pitched this primarily from an extreme weather preparedness and disaster relief perspective,” said Samantha Jayasundera, who just completed her second year as an undergraduate electrical engineering student. “Climate change is making storms worse, increasing their frequency and intensity. So while this is a product and a company that we are pitching, it also benefits humanity. We need to invest in things like this right now.”

“There is a lot of focus on solar and wind energy,” added teammate Jessica Beck, who just completed her 3rd year as a chemical engineering student. “But there is a lot of potential for marine energy as well, which is generated from the natural movement of water.”

In fact, they reported that about 57% of the nation’s electricity needs could be met if the U.S. utilized all of its available marine energy resources. 

And not only would artificial kelp forests hold up well during extreme storms, they could also provide potentially life-saving power following natural disasters.

The entire competition felt like a celebration of people that were in the sustainable energy space.

Jessica Beck

Beck and Jayasundera only learned of this technology while preparing for the competition. They met while taking a course offered through the Center for Entrepreneurship that focused on climate change and entrepreneurship. Beck is pursuing a minor in sustainability along with her degree in ChemE, and Jayasundera is adding a minor in entrepreneurship and a certificate in sustainable engineering to her EE degree.

Jayasundera presenting at the competition.
Samantha Jayasundera presenting at the competition.

They enjoyed working on the team project so much, they were inspired to work together on another venture. So they turned to the internet, where they found several national competitions devoted to climate change, energy, technology, and startup companies. The DoE’s Energy Tech University Challenge seemed like an ideal opportunity for them. Its focus was the development of high-potential energy technologies, and it offered mentorship with a researcher in a national lab.

They reached out to Dr. Nicole Mendoza at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), who has been making her own waves as a “supersonic environmentalist.” Mendoza is a Senior Researcher in Wind Energy Systems at NREL, CTO of the startup company SkyBaron, and affiliated with U-M’s Global CO2 Initiative (profile story). Part of her research has focused on using artificial kelp forests to generate electricity.

“I was very excited when Samantha and Jessie reached out to me about all of the cool things they wanted to do with my kelp technology,” said Mendoza. “I was also ecstatic about supporting these two young, amazing women in STEM fields and seeing what innovative ideas and applications they came up with.”

The team believes a company like KelpNext could achieve a minimum viable product in six months, and full deployment in three to five years, if the money for R&D was available.

Of course Beck and Jayasundera are still in school, and they are not doing the actual research. The effort it took just to compete in the final round of competition was similar to taking another college course, they both said.

The competition included 225 teams of students from 117 schools that included undergraduate, master’s, and PhD students from a wide variety of disciplines. The only requirement was an interest in transitioning energy technologies from the lab to market.

The KelpNext team first competed regionally, where they received $3K and earned the opportunity to compete in the national competition along with 27 other teams. They spent the next 6 weeks preparing their materials for the national pitch in Austin, Texas, which included an exhaustive 10-page paper.  Their winning presentation earned them another $22K in prize money.

“The entire competition felt like a celebration of people that were in the sustainable energy space,” said Beck. “They [DoE OTT] want to get these different energy technologies to market, but they also care about investing in the people.”