Diversity & Inclusion
Entrepreneurs / Environment / Youth

This program led by high schoolers is DelawareLaunch-ing student entrepreneurs

Delaware teens impressed with their green ideas, from STEM to creative curation.

The participants of the DelawareLaunch event in February. (Courtesy gif)
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The last thing I expected from a high school pitch competition was a project where nanobots created from DNA fight environmental mercury poisoning, but here we are.

Eesha Sagiraju and Shravan Balaji are the team behind DNA Envirosensors, the first-place winners of DelawareLaunch, a “Shark Tank”-style, environment-focused competition for Delaware high school students.

The Charter School of Wilmington (CSW) students decided to use Sagiraju’s experience learning about nanotechnology as the basis of their startup.

“We work with the Oxford biophysics department at Oxford University,” said Sagiraju, a sophomore. “They mentored me in DNA nanotechnology, and that’s how I learned how to make these miniature nanostructures.”

While nanobots of science fiction may resemble microscopic metal spiders, DNA Envirosensors’ nanobots are entirely biocompatible, made of 100% DNA.

“The nanotechnology is going to be sent out into the environment as an aerosol, and it would be able to interact with the atmosphere as well as go down into the ocean where there is quite a lot of dissolved mercury ions in the water,” said Balaji, also a student at CSW.

Mercury poisoning, their research found, kills about 40 people in Delaware a year. The nanobots’ DNA-based biosensor detects the buildup of mercury and releases detoxifying compounds to purify mercury-polluted areas.

Right now, the nanobots are being developed as a model that can run code sequences, and they hope to move into the production phase. Most of the equipment they need, with the exception of a PCR machine, is in their school’s nanotechnology lab.

DelawareLaunch itself is an event by the Delaware Entrepreneurship League (DEL), a high school student-run organization founded at CSW.

At DEL, we really work to establish a problem-solving framework — basically, the entrepreneurial mindset — which helps set students up for future success.Isheta Kulshreshtha Delaware Entrepreneurship League

“DEL is basically a nonprofit organization that works to further the entrepreneurial mindset in high school students,” said Isheta Kulshreshtha, president of the Entrepreneurship League and a student at CSW. “It stems from the lack of resources for youth entrepreneurs, a problem that has been addressed by Forbes and UNICEF, so it’s a pretty prevalent problem. At DEL, we really work to establish a problem-solving framework — basically, the entrepreneurial mindset — which helps set students up for future success.”

While DelawareLaunch in February was the Entrepreneurship League’s first big in-person event, it’s been active with smaller events, like entrepreneur talks. While the organization is based at CSW, the small team works to attract students from other Delaware schools.

“We market on our Instagram account and at our events, and we also reached out to schools,” said Sohana Addagada, DEL’s program director, also a student at CSW. “Our main goal was to get students from different schools all around the state so everyone could get an opportunity.”

One of the non-CSW students to participate in DelawareLaunch is Caroline Peach, the second-place winner and Ursuline Academy junior who pitched Culture Create. It’s a subscription-style box for kids that aims to create environmental change through cultural education through engaging items, including a craft, literature, an artisan-made item and candy.

While Peach’s pitch was different from the STEM-focused pitches in the competition, her idea impressed the judges.

“I was watching all the other presentations, and they were all so good,” she said. “And I realized how much Culture Crate had a nonconventional approach, and how many different ways and sectors are able to help the environment. … I’m curious to see how far we can take it and how much it [can be] impactful.”

In the meantime, DEL is looking toward the summer, when it will launch a summer day camp with an entrepreneurship focus at Cab Calloway School.

“We’re definitely looking to expand and get more people involved,” Kulshreshtha said.

Interested in learning more? Go to delentrepreneurship.com for information.

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