Environmental engineering major wins Bizpitch

The Biz Pitch Contest offers University of Minnesota undergraduate students an opportunity to present their new business ideas to a panel of entrepreneurs and investors. Brian Balquist, an Environmental Engineering major in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, proposed a company that applies existing wastewater surveillance technology to new areas. His business idea and his pitch led to him taking home two prizes. Balquist won for the Most Innovative idea and the Overall Grand Prize, which came with a check for $2,000.

Video: Brian Balquist, winner BizPitch 2023

Balquist’s Big Idea

Brian Balquist’s idea was a company, Salamander Life Systems, that could apply wastewater surveillance techniques, similar to those used to monitor the presence of Covid-19 in human waste water, to a new area, hog breeding farms. 

Hog breeding farms are prone to a virus known as PRRS, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, which can have significant negative impacts on breeding stock. Monitoring wastewater from these farms could give hog breeders an earlier indication of the presence of the virus in their herds and allow earlier treatment, leading to faster herd recovery and continued reproduction. For some meat-producing operations, it can often make more sense to cull a sick herd and start over than to treat a diseased herd. In contrast, breeding farms are heavily invested in maintaining their breeding stock and they will invest in protecting and healing their animals for continued breeding. Hog breeders would benefit greatly from greater abilities to predict and mitigate a viral outbreak among their valuable breeding sows. Salamander Life Systems makes good business sense because of farmers’ commitment to the welfare of their animals. 

Balquist’s motivation

Balquist often says, “I love wastewater!” His interest started when he visited a wastewater treatment plant in high school. He determined that is what he wanted to study. As an environmental engineering major, Balquist heard about wastewater surveillance used to detect Covid-19 levels. “It was cool that there was a brand-new breakthrough in the field that I am studying right now. Then I thought, ‘they are only really using this in one narrow lane. This has got to be more widely applicable.’ So, I started researching. My first idea was to use wastewater surveillance on cruise ships. I developed an in-depth business model plan for a social venture using wastewater monitoring on cruise ships, but discovered it didn’t make good financial sense.”

The name Salamander Life Systems gives a nod to the technology’s predictive aspects; salamanders are a sensitive species that can be an early indicator of problems.

The competition

Balquist entered the BizPitch competition and Salamander Life Systems was chosen as one of six finalists. Balquist had just 90 seconds—no notes, no visuals—to present his idea to a panel of five judges, a mix of industry professionals and investors from the Student Venture Capital Board. After the 90-second presentation, students answered a broad range of questions from the judges about the business model, technical issues, competitors, etc. Participants were evaluated on their idea and the quality of their pitch. 

“Ninety seconds was intense!” said Balquist. “I had to introduce myself, build a modicum of credibility, preface the problem, explain my solution to that problem, and then outline the business structure from there. In an odd way, the 90-second limit helped because it forced me to think about what is the most valuable, what is not valuable, and cold open, what does someone need to know?” 

UMN offers multiple resources

In preparing for the competition, Balquist made use of multiple resources available throughout the University. 

As a participant in CSE’s Mentor Program, he received valuable guidance from his CSE mentor, Armando Mitchell, who works a lot in business mergers and acquisitions. “It was great to get feedback from someone less familiar with wastewater but still involved in the business pitch space. I also got some help from the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship. John Stavig was really helpful in preparing me for the competition itself. He let me know what the judges would be looking for, what was most important.” 

Balquist also credited a new course he took in CEGE, Storytelling for Engineers. “I definitely feel that taking the Storytelling for Engineers class helped me with this. After the competition, a woman who works with the Entrepreneur Center said that I did a really good job of crafting a pitch and a story about what I was doing and why I should be given money. I went beyond just facts and figures. She said that makes the difference sometimes.” 

He credits one of his Storytelling classmates with helping him home in on the idea of hog breeders. “In giving feedback on my class presentation about wastewater engineering, one of my classmates who works in agriculture said, ‘You brought that up rather offhandedly, but based on the farms I’ve been on, it seems like there would be a demand for that.’ So, I did some research, talked to Dr. Erin Koltus on the agriculture campus, and other professors. I realized the possibilities and moved forward with that application.”

Balquist also drew from his Grand Challenges class. “One of the professors there does a really good job of promoting events going on at the U. And the TA, Morgan, had won BizPitch previously. She shared some guidance and helped me with my presentation, told me what to focus on. That really helped me.” 

Balquist also put in a lot of time and effort. “I would give my pitch to people at the granite table [a gathering place in the Civil Engineering Building] and to my little brother on the phone. I told them, ‘Hit me with your questions, what do you think?’ It was good to get a lot of different perspectives from people. I am really grateful for all the friends and family that helped me!”

On taking risks 

Balquist noted that taking risks like this contest and pursuing entrepreneurial ideas do not come easily to engineers. “Engineers tend not to take risks. That is kind of the nature of the job, right? You want to make sure it works before you do it, and that is kind of counter to taking risks. So, I made it a goal of mine to take more smart, mindful risks. That does not mean doing something stupid, just that you don’t know that it will work out until you try.” 

“One take-away for me is that a lot of people in engineering do not consider the business side of things, but at the end of the day, money is what drives a lot of decisions. Making a point to familiarize yourself with how business is run on an institutional scale will make you, I would hazard to assume, a better engineer. Even if it doesn't make you a better engineer, it will make you a more well-rounded person.”

“I would love to be an entrepreneur running my own venture, if the time is right and I have the skills to make something work. Although, having a job already lined up after graduation is pretty cool, too!”

Brian Balquist plans to graduate in May 2024 with his bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering. He has accepted a job with Kimley Horn in St. Paul where he will be working as a civil engineering analyst in the water and wastewater treatment area.

For engineers who do want to stretch during their academic career, CEGE and UMN offer many opportunities and support along the way.