Startup founder demonstrates importance of STEM entrepreneurship to elementary students
“Not many careers give you the freedom to unleash your creative potential.” -Scott Massey, CEO and Co-founder of Heliponix
Scott Massey was introduced to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at a young age.
“My grandfather was an electrical engineering professor at Notre Dame and MIT,” Massey said. “He was a cryptologist who studied information theory for NASA.”
Like many kids, he often played with Legos, building planes and ships while developing an early interest in mechanical engineering.
Through his relationship with his grandfather, Massey was exposed to being creative with STEM.
“I built a radio with basic electrical components from a kit he had bought when I was younger,” Massey said. “I really enjoyed piecing together the radio, turning it on, and hearing the radio work.”
Massey continued to pursue his love of STEM at Purdue University, where he studied mechanical engineering technology. He then explored entrepreneurship as a viable career path and enrolled in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Certificate Program.
It wasn’t until he discovered his passion for hydroponics that he had the idea to start his own venture. Massey and Ivan Ball co-founded Heliponix their senior year at Purdue and built the GroPod to solve the global food crisis.
“I was originally introduced to the technology of hydroponics and indoor agriculture while working on NASA-funded research at Purdue to develop their own life support systems. As amazing as the introduction to the technology was, it left me really disappointed that there weren’t any jobs in this industry yet because these giant, commercial farming factories you see in media, aren’t that viable.”
“They consume so much energy it becomes very expensive to operate. So, I realized the final frontier for agriculture was not farm-to-table, but farm-and-table, through hydroponic food computers you can have in your home. This way, you can grow all of the food you need in-house.”
“…I realized the final frontier for agriculture was not farm-to-table, but farm-and-table…”
The Industrial Roundtable at Purdue University is one of the largest career fairs in the country, with more than 400 recruiters last year and attracting around 12,000 students. Though these career fairs offer diverse employment opportunities, Massey didn’t find careers where he was able to prototype his own technological theories with hydroponics.
Massey started filing for patents for the GroPod his senior year. He and the Heliponix (formerly Hydro Grow LLC) team created their first prototype and built a company around the technology.
“Although I was required to work 100 hours a week as a student to generate enough funds to cover just our patent expenses, I felt more free than any of my classmates.”
Though the path of entrepreneurship hasn’t necessarily been easy, Massey said it is rewarding to be able to follow his passion for solving a real, global problem.
“Not many careers give you the freedom to unleash your creative potential. What’s unique about entrepreneurship is that it gives an innovator the rare opportunity to incubate new technological leaps that existing companies may not be able to envision or fear would challenge their status quo. For those willing to take that leap, they can make disruptions profitable enough to continue funding their initial ideas into established companies.”
This summer, the ag-tech startup company turns two. Through his journey with his STEM business, Massey said he understands the value of educating the next generation.
“It’s important that kids understand they have the power to solve problems their communities face; they don’t have to follow a traditional professional path to find success and better society. They have options. In fact, the tech-enabled world is changing so rapidly, it is not only important to be able to think about entrepreneurship, but it’s also critical if we are going to creatively solve global issues.”
Laura Swessel, a physics and earth/space teacher at Our Lady of Providence Junior/Senior High School in Clarksville, Indiana, organizes the STEM clubs at the school. Swessel said that since she started her 20-year career as a mechanical systems engineer, she believes it is important to expose young children to all aspects of STEM, including careers.
“I asked Scott to come talk about Heliponix because we have been stressing the entrepreneur side of careers this semester,” Swessel said. “I was very eager to have him explain the units and how they work, because it is my hope to purchase a unit to use with the club members and high school students next year.”
Massey held a STEM demonstration for the fourth through sixth grade STEM Club students about indoor agriculture technology. Massey also discussed the tech behind the Heliponix GroPod and the importance of the self-sustaining unit capable of growing fresh produce in a consumer’s home.
“There will be an additional 3 billion people on this planet by the year 2050,” Massey said. “We need to increase our global food output by 70 percent if we are going to avoid a global food crisis, according to the United Nations. However, this will be very difficult to achieve considering agriculture already accounts for 50 percent of our land use and 80 percent of our freshwater consumption in the U.S.”
Indiana as a state has become increasingly invested in STEM education as well as supporting entrepreneurs, like Massey.
In 2012, the Indiana Department of Education began a statewide STEM education plan, identifying the need for ‘rigorous and engaging’ STEM education in schools. The plan includes resources, funding, and information so local schools may better implement STEM education into curriculum and provide options to become further involved in STEM focused, extracurricular activities. The STEM Teacher Recruitment Fund, a $10 million grant program, has also been initiated to grow the number of STEM teachers in classrooms across the state. Applications for the 2018 Governor’s STEM Team are open, honoring four high school students for their exemplary performance in a STEM subject, where winning students receive a $1,000 college scholarship.
Indiana has also recognized the importance of supporting entrepreneurship and the important role it plays in economic development.
The Indiana Economic Development Corporation organizes several programs and consolidates resources that support businesses and entrepreneurs, such as Elevate Ventures, the Indiana Small Business Development Center, as well as the state’s network of more than 150 coworking spaces, incubators, accelerators, and maker spaces. Across the state are seven different coworking ecosystems through Purdue Research Foundation’s park locations. The state also supports the Battery Innovation Center, a WestGate@Crane Technology Park tenant, which leverages Indiana’s public and private-sector assets in advanced technologies, Elevate Ventures Kinetic Conference which showcases Indiana’s high growth business, as well as the Next Level Fund which supports innovation in Indiana by making strategic investments in high-growth, high-potential companies.
Entrepreneurship education has been a focus at the university level, such as the Burton D. Morgan Business Model Competition at Purdue University and the Clapp IDEA Competition at Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Together, these competitions alone award more than $50,000 each year to student entrepreneurs.
This year, the first statewide student pitch competition for high school students, the Innovate WithIN 2018 Pitch Competition, awarded prizes totaling $100,000 and will expand in 2019. The inaugural competition drew 86 applicants from nearly 300 students at 65 high schools.
Startup activity is a ‘vital indicator of economic growth’ and having entrepreneurs demonstrate their ideas and businesses enhances Indiana’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, as expressed in “The long view: Fostering Indiana’s innovation and entrepreneurship.”
As a young entrepreneur, Massey believes in the value of STEM entrepreneurial education.
“Being introduced to hydroponic technology as a Purdue University student engineer on a NASA funded research study motivated me to create the original designs that became Heliponix,” Massey said. “Through events such as STEM Demo Day at Our Lady of Providence, I hope that we can continue to demonstrate the importance of STEM and entrepreneurial education to enrich our future workforce. As these events are replicated, the quality of life and career opportunities across Indiana will continue to grow.”
Thank you to the resources and staff at the Indiana State Library, the Office of Governor Eric J. Holcomb, and the Indiana Economic Development Corporation for their help in researching information for this article. A special thank you to Laura Swessel and the students at Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School for allowing us to share their entrepreneurial education story.