Interdisciplinary team wins big at Demo Day

mushrooms growing out of a block

The VCU da Vinci Center’s Demo Day is an annual showcase of student innovators and entrepreneurs, with thousands of dollars in seed funding on the line. This year, an interdisciplinary team—with students from VCUarts, the College of Humanities and Sciences, the Wilder School and University College—took home one of the top prizes.

Jem Roberts, a Photography + Film major, Trent Jackson, an Interdisciplinary Studies major, Zuhayr Shaikh, a biology major, and Nate Vogel, an Urban and Regional Studies major, are all students in da Vinci’s Venture Creation certificate program. Their company, Uyoga, was one of eight teams to participate in VCU Pre-X, a semester-long program to identify, support, and launch high-growth and high-potential startups and founders.

Uyoga spent the semester developing an environmentally friendly mushroom-based material that could replace non-biodegradable polymers in a variety of products.

“Winning this prize is a certification of the methods we have iterated on and implemented that have taken us to this point,” Roberts says. “As the team and customer relations manager, it is my utmost pleasure to help support my business partners in the aspects that prove potent to the inner work needed to drive the industry forward, especially in such a visionary and future-oriented environment.”

The Uyoga team initially explored using mushroom technology to develop pavers that could reduce water run-off. However, they later pivoted to yoga blocks, which have a quicker path to market and a lower barrier of entry.

The team hopes the yoga blocks will allow them to further refine their products and manufacturing processes while they explore new formulas and markets, such as insulation, ceiling tiles, coolers and filters.

Uyoga’s product impressed the judges—a mix of investors, entrepreneurs and corporate sponsors—at Demo Day. The team received the VCU Pre-X Top Prize, a $5,000 award that they plan to use for further research and development.

Uyoga’s Demo Day presentation

“Winning this award has legitimized our venture by enabling us to set up our own prototyping lab space, attain legal protections, and promote our mission of bringing sustainable manufacturing to Virginia on a larger scale,” Shaikh says. 

Vogel says both the funds and the recognition will help Uyoga evolve from an idea into a business. “It’s also proving to us and to others that what we believe in and our values as a company really speak to other people,” he says.