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Sorbit Succeeds in Little Bang! Poster Competition
Innovation: A diaper made entirely out of bacteria cellulose grown on citrus ag-waste

Note: Economics and design double-major undergraduate Julie Xu wrote this blog about team Sorbit’s entrepreneurial experiences in 2018. Sorbit won a $250 competition award and a 500 Venture Well / TEAM BioInnovation award in the November 2018 Little Bang! Poster Competition: Session 1. Xu is also a 2018/19 EQUIP scholar.

In 1998 the EPA estimated that diapers contribute to 3.4 million tons of landfill waste every year. In the two decades since, the numbers have surely grown. Diaper waste is a crappy problem, but since they were introduced in the 1950s, modern disposable diapers have also liberated many parents and caretakers from endless hours of washing soiled fabric. Our team envisions a world where everyday hygiene is easy, effective and environmentally sustainable. So, we created Sorbit, a bio-based, aerogel-core diaper that sources raw materials from agricultural waste, maintains the convenience of conventional disposable products, and can be biodegraded after use for a circular life cycle.

We first met in January 2018 as classmates in the inaugural Biodesign Challenge class taught in collaboration between the UC Davis Design and Biomedical Engineering Departments by Professors Christina Cogdell and Marc Facciotti (who continued to mentor us after the official class ended).

Team Sorbit

Through articles and guest speakers, our class studied the history and status of bioengineering and focused on microbial cellulose, which is a byproduct of fermentation found in common foods like jellies and kombucha tea. One of our teammates, who has a little sister, witnessed first hand the amount of diaper waste a single baby can generate. We were inspired to apply the unique high absorbency, nanoscale fibers, and compostability of microbial cellulose in disposable hygiene products like diapers, pads and tampons.

Within our class, we collaborated with fellow student teams to research and develop aspects of the cellulose growth and aerogel production process. Our team ultimately represented UC Davis in the 2018 Biodesign Challenge (BDC), an annual global competition that encourages collaboration between art, design and science. At the BDC Summit in June, we proposed our idea with an oral presentation and a museum exhibit display, and communicated the impacts of our product through a creative video (starring aforementioned little sister!). We were encouraged by the positive feedback from both public spectators and the official panel of judges who were leaders of biodesign in industry and academia.

After coming home with the Overall Runner-Up and the Outstanding Science Awards, we wanted to continue developing our project as a product and company. We entered the Little Bang! Poster Competition because it provides an excellent avenue to refine our idea and to learn about entrepreneurship.

At the Little Bang!, we learned that pitching a business proposal requires different framing than presenting a science or design project.

At the Little Bang!, we learned that pitching a business proposal requires different framing than presenting a science or design project. Judges gave us feedback to focus on how Sorbit would function for customers, how much it would cost to produce and purchase, and how it can enter the market, rather than just delving straight into the technical details. Several attendees and judges who came to our poster also shared their own frustrating experiences of wanting a more environmentally conscious diaper, but finding cloth diapers to be a terrible, messy hassle; so we were encouraged that our idea addresses a genuine area of need!

Click here to learn more about the Little Bang! Poster Competition

Going forward, our plan is to consult interdisciplinary experts, conduct scientific and economic research, take relevant classes and consistently communicate through Google Drive, shared calendars and weekly team meetings.

During our Biodesign Challenge course, we had also consulted Textile and Polymer Science Professor You-Lo Hsieh, who has researched and patented innovations in agricultural waste derived aerogels. In January, we plan to interview her to better understand the production process, material specifications, and general status of innovation around aerogels and absorbent technology. We can then apply this knowledge to our own research and development.

Although our focus throughout the Biodesign Challenge had been on developing the aerogel core material, creating a successful consumer product requires thoughtful consideration of its overall construction. To help determine our next steps in prototyping further iterations, Julie will reach out to Design Professor Tom Maiorana, who has extensive practice in design thinking, prototyping, and product development.

The average baby uses 7,000 diapers in their lifetime and current diapers cost around $0.20 each. To learn how we can scale up and ensure an affordable price, we plan to contact experts in large-scale bio-manufacturing. Namely, we want to connect with companies that manufacture Nata de Coco, a popular jelly-like food found in Asian desserts and even as a topping at the boba cafes that are popular around Davis! Nata de Coco is produced by microbial fermentation, the same method by which our BC is produced, and we hope we can apply the innovations developed to efficiently grow coconut jelly to our production process.

Furthermore, we hope to connect with scientists at established hygiene companies like P&G (Pampers), Kimberly-Clark (Huggies) learn from them about how diapers are produced and how they are user tested.

Here is how our team members plan to contribute:

Jolee plans to explore double majoring in design and biochemistry. She also plans to get a Certificate in Entrepreneurship from the Student Startup Center  at UC Davis; her first step is the Introduction to Entrepreneurship class in the engineering department. She hope to gain more resources and valuable advice from the courses lessons and instructor. Furthermore, when the team finds a lab to do more research in she plans on taking a very active role in wet lab work.

Julie will take a management class for marketing, during which she will learn how to analyze markets, competitors, and customers. She wants to practice what she learns in the class at Sorbit. She will also attend the Big Bang! workshop “Show Me the Money: Projecting + Presenting Financials” and learn how to demonstrate the financial breakdown of Sorbit because we need to conduct a throughout financial analysis of the cost of production.

Annie will also continue to attend many of the workshops offered by the Big Bang!, especially those that will help us understand how to construct a business model (Define and Validate Your Business Model) effectively market and communicate our technical details. She plan to continue research into the hygiene industry and apply knowledge from her Materials Science & Engineering coursework to continue refining our materials’ properties.

Overall, we are so excited to continue learning from the workshops, mentorship and entrepreneurship community that the Big Bang! Business Competition cultivates.

Sorbit team members

Jolee Nieberding-Swanberg: Sophomore majoring in biochemistry; Sorbit team lead

Annie Wang: Junior majoring in material science and engineering

Julie Xu: Junior majoring in design and economics

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