Foothill alumni take their startup to VERGE Accelerate
At Foothill, students have tremendous opportunities to pursue work they’re passionate about.
For alumna Rachel Major, that meant building her love for biochemistry and clean technology into a startup.
Major came to Foothill in 2015, Drexel University graduate, looking to transfer with a degree different from her biological science degree into a masters program. During her time at Foothill she joined the engineering club and connected with a student collaboration, ASL NASA Ames.
“I wrote this proposal combining biomimicry and clean tech," she said. "It was accepted and it turned into an internship at NASA Ames."
Major needed to put together a research team for what was supposed to be a summer research project but grew into NuLeaf Tech, a startup treating and recycling water at any scale by mimicking wetland ecosystems.
She turned to both De Anza and Foothill students to see if there was interest to join her research group.
“Ari was one of the first people to respond to the research team,” Major said.
“When I heard that at the time, I thought this was just something that I had to do,” said Ari Ochoa, a co-founder of NuLeaf Tech. Ochoa came to Foothill right out of high school to work on a transfer degree.
Major, Ochoa and the research team worked on pursuing NuLeaf Tech as a project but then landed another opportunity to take their project even further.
“We got a chance to take it to RebelBio Accelerator Program,” Ochoa said. “I saw that as a once in a lifetime opportunity to go do that versus going to start school [in Humboldt]. I made my choice and here we are. You can’t let your dreams just be dreams.”
RebelBio offers seed funding, lab space, and world-class mentorship to startups looking to solve world problems through science. Major and Ochoa went to Ireland for four months to RebelBio and spent an additional two months working with business. They gained helpful insight about combining engineered wetlands with microbial fuel cells.
“The more we talked with people in Ireland, the more small-scale compact water treatment became more apparent, especially for breweries,” Major said. “You know, they’re in cramped city spaces. They have limited space to put stuff.”
That’s how the NuTree came to fruition. NuLeaf Tech is currently in the midst of turning wastewater into a resource through the NuTree, a self-powered system that recycles water for reuse, recycles nutrients for micro-greens in a vertical farming attachment, and creates bio-energy.
Major and Ochoa said NuLeaf is in the middle of producing the first NuTree and similar products on a smaller scale. They currently have a pilot program for breweries to use the NuTrees when they are ready to treat wastewater used for cleaning and decontaminating brewing machinery and bottles.
Nuleaf is currently in talks with breweries in Scotland and in California. Steel Bonnet Brewing Company in Scotts Valley has joined NuLeaf Tech’s pilot program. They plan to have the pilot units running by mid 2019.
In October NuLeaf Tech will showcase its progress at VERGE Accelerate, a series of fast-pitch competitions where entrepreneurs pitch to thousands of business leaders, government officials and investors in-person and through a live stream.
Major and Ochoa said in the three years from co-founding NuLeaf Tech so much has happened but they’re glad they were able to pursue their NuLeaf.
“Foothill is a good place to stop, evaluate and get the support you need,” Major said. “It could be the next jump in your career.”