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Shine bright

Innovative ideas win top prizes at competition for women and gender-diverse students

By Susan White

A PhD student who aims to protect wild fish stocks by producing food made from insects was a big winner at Illuminate last week.

Jessika Lamarre, founder of Invertable, took home multiple awards at the inaugural pitch competition for women and gender-diverse students hosted by the Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship (MCE).

Invertable won the Diamond Award for the overall winner as well as the Leadership Award, Social Impact Award and Community Choice Award, which was voted on by the live audience.

Jessika Lamarre, a white woman in her late 20s, stands behind a table with her arms behind her back. Four glass awards rest on the table.
Jessika Lamarre won four of five awards at Illuminate, a pitch competition for women and gender-diverse students.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

PureFlow, founded by mechanical engineering students Hannah Doyle and Kamsi Ifeanyichukwu, was the runner-up with the Promising Idea Award.

Sustainable solution

Ms. Lamarre is currently studying cognitive and behaviour ecology at the Faculty of Science.

She started Invertable in a shed in her backyard shortly after leaving her career as a dietitian to return to school.

“My background made me very aware of the cognitive benefits that we get from consuming fish,” she said. “When I came back to school to become a biologist, it was obvious that there is a dichotomy between how important of a resource fish is to us and the way we overfish them and treat the marine environment altogether.

“Aquaculture could be a good solution to move away from harming wild stocks,” she continued, “but that’s only if we stop using wild stocks as a source of food for our farmed fish.”

The solution, she believes, is food made from insects that have an equivalent nutritional profile.

That’s where the shed comes in.

“It’s heartwarming to see that people with all kinds of expertise agree that sustainability can be lucrative and is worth investing in.” — Jessika Lamarre

Last summer, she began experimenting with creating a substrate to feed mealworms and crickets, later testing each new batch of insects in a lab to verify its nutritional profile.

While the substrate isn’t quite where she wants it to be yet, she hopes to achieve a minimum viable product by next summer.

Her winnings — $7,500 in total — will go towards financing lab analysis, speeding up product development and planning to scale her business.

“It’s such an honour to receive this validation, not only from entrepreneurs, but also from the general public,” said Ms. Lamarre. “Since my business is all about sustainability, it’s heartwarming to see that people with all kinds of expertise agree that sustainability can be lucrative and is worth investing in.”

Deanne McCarthy, chief executive officer (CEO) of Swiftsure, will provide mentoring as part of the Diamond Award; MCE is the award sponsor.

“Receiving the Promising Idea Award . . . serves as a powerful validation of our dedication and hard work.” — Kamsi Ifeanyichukwu

Constanza Safatle, CEO of Newbornlander, will provide mentoring as part of the Social Impact Award; Memorial’s Centre for Social Enterprise is the award sponsor.

Jennifer Bessell, CEO, Newfoundland and Labrador Organization of Women Entrepreneurs, will provide mentoring as part of the Leadership Award; NLOWE is the award sponsor.

Hannah Doyle, a white woman in her early 20s, holds a glass award and Kamsi Ifeanyichukwu, a Black woman in her early 20s holds a large cheque made out to PureFlow.
From left are Hannah Doyle and Kamsi Ifeanyichukwu, who took home the award for Promising Idea.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Genesis sponsored the Community Choice Award. Other in-kind sponsors include eThree Consulting, Gardiner Centre and the shop, SALT.

The Promising Idea Award is valued at $1,000. It’s sponsored by Susan Murray Consulting with Dr. Murray also providing mentoring to Ms. Doyle and Ms. Ifeanyichukwu.

“Receiving the Promising Idea Award was an incredibly proud moment for our team,” said Ms. Ifeanyichukwu. “It serves as a powerful validation of our dedication and hard work. It reflects our enthusiasm and determination to continue developing and refining our idea, bringing us one step closer to making a meaningful impact.”

PureFlow aims to develop an eco-friendly, biodegradable tampon with a built-in illness-detection sensor for proactive vaginal care.

They plan to use their winnings to develop a prototype.

‘So inspiring’

Illuminate is an entrepreneurial training program for female and gender-diverse students that includes skills development and coaching.

Forty-nine students enrolled in the program with 17 students across 15 teams opting to enter the competitive stream.

The other finalists to pitch at the live event follow below.

  • Borrowit: a platform that connects owners of household items with people in need in an effort to contribute to environmentally and financially sustainable communities (founders: Maryam Mofrad, Roxana Popescu and Klára Šteflová, all master of science in management students at the Faculty of Business Administration);
  • Simply Wedding: advocates for zero-waste weddings by promoting a circular economy within the bridal community (founders: Ka Yan (Nancy) Leung, master of business administration student, and Sinney Cheuk); and
  • UrHome: addresses the housing crisis with an app that connects landlords and tenants, streamlining rental processes and payments (also founded by Ms. Doyle and Ms. Ifeanyichukwu).

“Being part of Illuminate was so inspiring,” said Ms. Ifeanyichukwu. “It was so nice to be around like-minded, young female and gender-diverse people with entrepreneurial minds like ourselves. It was a great opportunity to share our ideas and learn from each other.”

Jessika Lamarre stands at the front of a room with a panel of four judges seated at a long table.
Jessika Lamarre answers questions from the judges during Illuminate.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Illuminate offers training sessions, mentoring from women and gender-diverse startup coaches and an online community.

Ed Martin, MCE’s director, says the centre created Illuminate to counter declining participation from women and gender-diverse students.

“Over the past year, our gender diversity numbers have been much lower than expected, and lower than they were pre-pandemic. So while some past initiatives were successful, their impact appears to have been virtually wiped out by the pandemic,” he said.

The high number of participants exceeded expectations, he added.

“The response has been phenomenal. We have more than enough validation to make Illuminate a regular part of our yearly programming.”

Illuminate was held on Nov. 16 at the Core Science Facility on the St. John’s campus.

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