By Will Hyde – While some students spend their summers relaxing at home or vacationing, students like Trevor Nicks help start companies. A senior biochemistry major and business administration minor, Trevor traveled to Cork, Ireland to cofound Spira as the biotechnology company’s Chief Science Officer. Spira is focused on unlocking and developing the full nutritional potential of spirulina, a type of blue-green algae rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, carotenoids and antioxidants.
In the fall of 2015 Trevor met Virginia Commonwealth University bioengineering student Elliot Roth at a University Innovation Fellows conference. Staying connected through social media and a continuous sharing of ideas, Trevor decided to join Roth as an intern in Virginia. Hours after accepting the offer, Trevor learned that Spira had been accepted into the IndieBio EU business accelerator program, giving them $100,000 and three months of lab space in Cork, Ireland. With the increased budget and an original cofounder dropping out, Trevor was promoted to CSO.
Through the generosity of the Kauffman Foundation grant for creativity and innovation at WJC, Trevor received funds that would help pay the cost of getting to and living in Ireland. In addition, he was able to hire Jewell junior biochemistry major Seki Anderson as a lab intern. This was not the only help he received, though. According to Trevor, “I couldn’t have done it without the help of Jewell biology professor, Dr. Lilah Rahn-Lee, and Director of Creativity and Innovation, Professor Landon Young.” Trevor used Skype to communicate with Dr. Rahn-Lee multiple times over the summer to discuss various conceptual and procedural questions about what best to do in the lab. Professor Landon Young introduced the company to valuable mentors while acting as one himself.
Spira pursued two research and development avenues while in Cork. What products were they creating? One, eventually called Spira, is a drink containing algae of the name spirulina. What’s unique about the drink? Spira contains all essential amino acids and a wealth of vitamins. It is protein-rich while being tasty and vegan friendly. Bottling up spirulina as tasty lime-flavored drink made perfect sense. Second, and more related to Trevor’s expertise, was developing genetic tools for engineering spirulina as a commercial source of amino acids for potential use in pharmaceuticals and other applications.
By the end of the summer, Trevor, Seki and an Irish intern, and now friend, Ian, had successfully created a proof-of-concept for expressing foreign DNA in spirulina, an essential step in the process of creating valuable intellectual property. All of this came with its share of lessons. For Trevor, he learned a lot about himself, running a business, and what it takes to put into action the lessons taught in the classroom here at William Jewell. “I am the only person in the company to have even taken classes in business,” Trevor exclaims. “Thanks to Accounting Professor Chris McCullick for going above and beyond the normal curriculum in Accounting 111.”
For Trevor, analyzing what options were best for the company to pursue with their limited resources proved invaluable. Professor Shelly McVay (marketing) helped Trevor understand the importance of a SWOT analysis. Trevor said, “Since we are an emerging company, doing a SWOT analysis was important to do early and regularly, because it gave us the chance to pivot.” He explained that their original idea was a spirulina-growing kitchen appliance, but they quickly abandoned this idea upon realizing its weaknesses.
Experiences like this one, and others, are what drives Trevor to encourage underclassmen to get a meaningful internship their first summer. As cliché as it sounds, it creates a stepping stone to get a bigger opportunity the next summer, then the summer after that, and become prepared to enter the workplace with a great resume, great experiences and learned skills.
Currently, Spira is back in the States, located in Virginia in another business accelerator, Lighthouse Lab. Trevor still serves as science advisor and has weekly online meetings with the team. All in all, this is another story of another amazing Jewell student doing amazing things during their time on The Hill.