Recent Xavier University graduate Michael Arens won’t soon forget his high school classmate’s presentation on plastic pollution during a public speaking class he took freshman year.
The presentation frustrated him. How did he barely know anything about this global catastrophe?
According to Plastic Oceans, a nonprofit sustainability company, more than 10 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans each year, or about a garbage truck load of plastic each minute. Much of this plastic stays near the coast. By 2040, the amount of plastic flowing into the Earth’s seas will nearly triple, National Geographic reported.
“I kind of became obsessed with the problem,” Arens said.
Four years later, he’s still obsessed. And he’s working on a way to fix it.
One of Arens’ professors, Mike Halloran, said Arens came into his entrepreneurship class as a college sophomore with this idea for an ocean rover machine that would collect trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Halloran said he finds it fascinating that today’s students are greatly invested in the world around them.
“Sustainability, poverty, things of that nature are things that this generation just seems to have a greater passion for,” Halloran said.
Halloran coached Arens through the process of starting a business and connected him with various resources and accelerator programs in the community, including the newly formed 1819 Hub at the University of Cincinnati.
UC’s 1819 Hub and Venture Lab includes a seven-week program for those wishing to pursue a career in entrepreneurship and launch their own startup company. It was there that Arens assembled a squad of partners from across the globe, found a mentor in UC professor Chris Petersen and shifted his idea from collecting trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to nearshore waters.
Arens participated in the Venture Lab program in 2019 and secured a $40,000 grant to get his company through the prototyping phase. Together with Petersen, the ragtag team of UC and Xavier student entrepreneurs formed a startup company, Clean Earth Rovers, and are currently working on prototypes for their product, the Plastics Piranha.
The Plastics Piranha works as a sort of Roomba for coastal waterways, Arens said. It’s relatively small, a five-by-five foot boat-like electric vessel that will be able to collect 300 pounds of waste per trip by skimming along the top of marinas and other waterways.
The company has come together over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly through Zoom calls.
“It’s crazy that my brainchild is strong enough to bring a passionate group of people together who are willing to contribute their time and efforts to it and have never even met each other,” Arens said.
Petersen said he never initially intended to get involved in a student startup. But seeing Arens’ passion behind the project brought him on board. He said he hopes his own two sons grow up to be like Arens someday.
“He’s just a great person and the fact that he’s willing to sort of forgo his career to try to solve this problem is, to me, is really impressive for someone just coming out of school,” Petersen said.
The ‘nerve center’: 1819 Hub
Before the 1819 Hub, UC was producing one startup company per year, said David Adams, UC’s chief innovation officer and architect of the Cincinnati Innovation District.
In the last three years since opening, the hub has produced 59 startups.
The hub serves as the “nerve center” for the Cincinnati Innovation District, designed to be a magnet for talent and new business as new buildings sprout up along Reading Road.
The hub’s purpose, Adams said, is to connect the economic engine of the university to the Cincinnati region and vice versa. The idea is to bring people and companies of all different backgrounds, sizes, mindsets and areas of discipline together to create something new.
“You might find an engineering major with a design major working in collaboration to make something happen,” Adams said. “And to us that’s the real power of this, is that this place is agnostic to the various colleges and disciplines. It’s also very agnostic to just being the University of Cincinnati.”
Arens is the first of Xavier students to bring his idea to life through the 1819 Venture Lab, but he won’t be the last, Adams said. The program has also invited students from Wright State University, University of Dayton, Northern Kentucky University and Cincinnati State Technical and Community College to participate.
“It’s important because as we look to grow, attract and retain talent here in Cincinnati, we need mechanisms like this so that individuals like (Arens) can actually start a business here,” Adams said. “Ultimately, we want to keep that business here.”
Xavier’s Halloran said Cincinnati has a “unique atmosphere” that has flourished into a booming startup community in the last 10 years. The opportunities he is able to arrange for students, both through his personal connections and through UC’s 1819 Hub, are invaluable.
“In Cincinnati, we’ve got(…) a very fraternal, supporting startup community where I think everybody feels like we’re there to help each other,” Halloran said.
A ‘daunting task’
Clean Earth Rovers’ first pilot customer, Victoria International Marina in British Columbia, recently signed on, Arens said. The plan is to launch the first Plastics Piranha there in the spring.
Arens said the Plastics Piranha uses autonomous, self-guiding technology that can detect nearby objects and avoid harming sea life. The rover will also collect water quality data as it roams waterways, tracking metrics like oxygen levels, temperature, pH levels and more.
By collecting that data, Petersen said, someday the company might be able to find a solution to reducing chemical pollutants in the ocean, too.
Arens admits that the ocean pollution problem is too big for any one person or company to solve, but he’s committed to being at the forefront of that solution.
“It’s a daunting task and a daunting problem to face,” he said. “But I think our passion and our belief in what we’re working on is what carries it forward. And I think that any contribution to solving the issue is a step in the right direction.”