Launching the inaugural cohort of START Entrepreneurs

Written by
Wright Seneres
Sept. 26, 2022

Supporting inclusive entrepreneurship at Princeton

Four academic researchers have begun the new START Entrepreneurs program, working to translate scholarship at Princeton into tangible impacts for society.

This program is part academic fellowship and part startup accelerator. The START Entrepreneurs will conduct academic research with faculty on campus and receive entrepreneurship education and mentorship while building fundable, early-stage new ventures such as startup companies or non-profit organizations based on the research. 

The START program was conceived by the Office of the Dean for Research as a major initiative of its diversity, equity and inclusion action plan launched in academic year 2021-22. “Princeton’s Office of the Dean for Research is dedicated to fostering greater diversity and broader participation in research, innovation and entrepreneurship within the University,” said Dean for Research Pablo G. Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “The START program supports and empowers inclusive entrepreneurship through spinouts from technologies and scholarship from all disciplines, across campus.”

This year’s START Entrepreneurs are:

Ebony Noelle Golden, Maksim Mezhericher, Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa, Sean Zheng

The first group of START Entrepreneurs: Ebony Noelle Golden, Maksim Mezhericher, Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa '14, Sean Zheng. Photos by Kevin Birch. 

“The START program reflects the inclusive nature of academic entrepreneurship at Princeton,” said Vice Dean for Innovation Craig B. Arnold, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “We have a tremendous inaugural cohort of START fellows with a great diversity of interests and strengths. I am excited to see them leverage the entrepreneurial education, training, mentorship and funding that Princeton is providing them through the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council.”

Read more about the inaugural START Entrepreneurs and their ventures below. The application process for the next cohort will open later this year at Applications from entrepreneurs with no prior connection to Princeton are encouraged.

Civic theater, transforming local government and hope for democracy

Ebony Noelle Golden is doing something about the decline of democratic participation and confidence in government. In addition to knocking on doors and canvassing voters, she’s using theater as a tool to increase civic engagement. Golden, an artist, scholar, culture strategist and entrepreneur, will be adapting a theater piece called “City Council Meeting” co-created by Aaron Landsman, lecturer at the Lewis Center for the Arts, into a startup called School for Participation. 

Landsman, a playwright and performer, and collaborators Mallory Catlett and Jim Findlay brought “City Council Meeting” to five U.S. cities in 2011 and invited audience members to perform excerpts of local government meetings from across the nation. “It modeled ways to engage creatively with bureaucracy and put young people in dialogue with elected officials,” said Landsman, who is working with Golden on the START program. Using the 2011 event as a model, she and Landsman will develop a curriculum around using theater skills to empower middle and high school students in cities as leaders and change-agents in their communities. During her first year as a START Entrepreneur, Golden will devise strategies for offering this curriculum to cities and school districts. In the second phase, she will implement these strategies and develop additional revenue streams. “I am interested in expanding my vision and my practice of doing good while sustaining models that affirm dignified wages, racial equity, access and connection in local communities,” said Golden.

Golden draws on a wide range of past experiences in arts and culture to make School for Participation impactful, including creation of site-specific ceremonies, live art installations, creative collaborations and experimental art that explore and radically imagine strategies for collective Black liberation. She is the founder of Jupiter Performance Studio, a hub for the study of diasporic Black performance traditions and the founder of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative, a culture consultancy and arts accelerator. She is a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, Women of Color in the Arts, and Alternate Roots and is a board member at Double Edge Theatre and an advisor for the National Dance Project at the New England Foundation for the Arts.

Golden holds bachelor degrees in English language and poetry from Texas A&M University, and an M.F.A. in poetry from American University. She earned a M.A. in Performance Studies from New York University.

I’m committed to a community-engaged, research-based approach to building systems, strategies and solutions for social justice within the arts and culture ecosystem. –Ebony Noelle Golden

Needed now more than ever: shelf-stable, room temperature vaccine and drug storage

The Covid-19 pandemic brought to light a pervasive problem for manufacturing and distributing life-saving drugs and vaccines: many liquid vaccines like those against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and others require sophisticated and expensive “cold supply chain” transportation and storage. Countries that cannot afford these extensive refrigeration logistics face two challenges: unequal access to vital drugs and unequal responses to pandemics among different countries. Disruptions in the cold chain have led to the wasting of vaccines and pharmaceuticals and reduced quality and safety of drugs, factors that are estimated by the United Nations Environment Program to cost billions of dollars each year.

With innovative liquid atomization and drying technology developed by START Entrepreneur Maksim Mezhericher and Howard A. Stone, Donald R. Dixon '69 and Elizabeth W. Dixon Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, these liquids can be rapidly dehydrated at room temperature, eliminating the need for the cold chain and enabling more equitable distribution of vital medicines.

During the first phase of the START program, Mezhericher plans to develop and test a new, scalable system to implement this rapid, room-temperature dehydration technology. This system can be incorporated into existing pharmaceutical development laboratories or into the supply chain between a manufacturer and a distribution hub. During the second phase, Mezhericher will focus on refining the technology’s value proposition and attracting additional partnerships and investment. Mezhericher’s START program experience will benefit from his previous experience in the Princeton Wharton Executive Entrepreneurship Education Program, as well as in the QED program at the University City Science Center and the NSF I-Corps regional program at Cornell/Pittsburgh. 

Mezhericher received his M.Sc. and B.Sc. in thermal and nuclear energy engineering from Odessa National Polytechnic University, Ukraine and his Ph.D. from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. He was a Visiting Research Scholar at Princeton from 2016 to 2018, jointly appointed in Prof. Stone’s Complex Fluids Lab and Prof. Yiguang Ju’s Advanced Combustion and Propulsion Lab in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Since then, he has continued in the department as an Associate Research Scholar and currently as a Research Scholar.

“I am thrilled to perform the research on this unique and ground-breaking technology and bring innovations to the world, which can have a broad impact on industry and society, improve lives of many people, contribute to environmental sustainability and benefit humanity in general. These goals motivate me to embark on entrepreneurship.” –Maksim Mezhericher

Healing the traumas of colonialism through reclaiming and spreading Zimbabwean culture and ancestral knowledge

The name Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa is an oxymoron in the ChiZezuru language: Tanyaradzwa means “we have been comforted” but Tawengwa means “we have been despised.” The composer, singer, scholar and healer Tanyaradzwa Tanwengwa is now a START Entrepreneur, and she aims to bring redress from the scars of European colonialism and cultural exploitation while also addressing the dearth of indigenous knowledge in Zimbabwean children’s creative education.

As a START Entrepreneur, she plans a range of research and development goals, including:

  • Further research and continued advocacy in the self-ownership and promotion of Madzimbabwe indigenous knowledge systems and culture through Chimurenga ChePfungwa: the liberation of the mind, which is an extension of her dissertation work
  • Develop virtual and in-person educational tools based on her “Liberated Curriculum” for Global Zimbabwe, which she founded in 2020 for children ages 5-10 (formerly known as “Zimbabwe KIDS Summer Camp”)
  • Establish a weekly in-person program at the Mushandirapamwe Hotel in Harare, Zimbabwe, serving 100 children ages 12 and under

Her grandfather endured the shame of working for colonial settlers on his own ancestral land, but resolved to buy the family’s land back. Matemai George Chirume-Tawengwa turned a transportation business of a single oxcart into a national fleet of buses and commercial properties. In 1960, he bought back the land stolen from him, in the process becoming the first African to buy land in Rhodesia. When Zimbabwe began its fight for independence from British colonizers in 1965, he offered his properties as operational bases for the Chimurenga struggle. After winning independence in 1980, his properties served as transitional housing for freedom fighters returning from war. “My grandfather’s story inspires my entrepreneurial calling,” said Tanyaradzwa. “If he was able to build a vast, enduring legacy during colonial occupation then surely I am capable of building a legacy as well.”

Tanyaradzwa is working with Gabriel Crouch, Professor of the Practice, Music and Director of Choral Activities at Princeton. “It is essential and inevitable that the knowledge, ownership and transmission of Zimbabwean music (indeed, all African music) be restored to the hands of its living inheritors, and Tanyaradzwa’s commitment to this mission through her educational startup ‘Global Zimbabwe’ is the clearest indication I can imagine of its ultimate success,” said Crouch. Tanyaradzwa hopes that the Global Zimbabwe model can be applied to other cultures beyond Zimbabwe. 

A 2014 alumna of Princeton, she received her Doctor of Musical Arts in Voice Performance as an Alltech Vocal Scholar from the University of Kentucky in 2021. In addition to Global Zimbabwe, she is the founder of MUSHANDIRAPAMWE Trust, a cultural arts organization dedicated to developing vocal talent in Zimbabwe, and the founder and CEO of Nhanha, Inc., whose mission is to preserve Zimbabwean culture through books, music and cartoons for children.

“My name is an oxymoron, and my hope is that my family’s and nation’s past will be healed and comforted.” –Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa

Sea change: sustainable lithium production

As transportation and other industries become more electrified and less reliant on fossil fuels, the need for lithium for batteries has increased dramatically. However, current commercial lithium production is a lengthy, chemical-heavy, and land-intensive process with negative impacts on freshwater ecosystems. An innovation developed in the lab of Zhiyong “Jason” Ren, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Associate Director for Research at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, can make the lithium extraction process fifty times faster than conventional methods, and without the high cost of land and chemicals. Sunxiang “Sean” Zheng, a postdoctoral research associate at the Andlinger Center, leads PureLi, a spinout founded to commercialize Prof. Ren’s technology.

“I was trained as an environmental engineer as well as a materials scientist, especially in the cleantech-related areas,” said Zheng. “It has always been my dream to develop transformative technology to make this world a better place to live in.” During the first phase of the START program, Zheng and the PureLi team will design and fabricate scalable crystallizers for high-efficiency lithium extraction, develop their minimum viable product (MVP) and secure partnerships for the second phase. PureLi (formerly known as Aura Lithium) gained valuable customer insights during the Regional Program at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Northeast Hub based at Princeton and won top startup at this summer’s Princeton Startup Bootcamp, powered by VentureWell.

The global market for lithium is expected to grow from nearly $7 billion to more than $19 billion in the next eight years. The U.S. is a major consumer but processes less than one percent of the world’s lithium. Increasing U.S. production of lithium has become a national priority, as written in the Biden administration’s “National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries 2021-2030” report. Bolstering domestic lithium production has many benefits, including supporting long-term U.S. economic competitiveness, decarbonization and the nation’s net zero emissions by 2050 goal, and improved national security.

Zheng and his sponsor Prof. Ren are well positioned to address this challenge in an inclusive way. “It is my goal to translate Princeton technology into the marketplace and also contribute to a sustainable, diverse and inclusive society,” said Ren. Added Zheng, “We make diversity and inclusion a central part of our mission, because as a clean-tech company our goal is not only to create economic value but also to ensure a sustainable supply of critical materials that benefits society and humanity for generations to come.”

Zheng received his Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, his M.S. in environmental engineering from the University of Maryland and his B.S. in environmental engineering from Zhejiang University of Technology in China.

“We hope to bring change and sustainability to an industry that is largely following traditional mining practices, which have negative environmental impacts and especially hurt distressed communities.” –Sean Zheng

Learn more at the START website.