MicrobeBlasters: Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Diversity

UMass iCons | MicrobeBlasters

Occupations in STEM — defined as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — are among the fastest-growing jobs in the United States, accounting for nearly 7% of all occupations or almost 10.8 million jobs.

However, only a fraction of these jobs are held by women and an even smaller number are high-paying, executive positions or entrepreneurial in nature. According to the United States Census, women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce but only 27% of the STEM labor force. Among STEM industry CEOs, the disparity is far greater — only 3% are women.

These statistics serve as a driving force behind the accomplishments of four enterprising UMass iCons students.

Undergraduates Sarah Kaunfer, Simran Jeet, Phoebe Lasic-Ellis, and Hayley McIsaac recently swept the 2021 Innovation Challenge, a multi-part competition hosted by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Isenberg School of Management, which encourages student ventures to take the leap into a startup business. The women submitted a product idea that they designed while in the iCons program to reduce the number of infections that patients develop in hospitals, clinics, and long-term facilities. They have now won more than $30,000 for their venture concept, titled MicrobeBlaster, and are exploring their next steps.

The team owes their early success to their smarts, hard work, and perseverance. Research and development took almost two years, and involved numerous setbacks and a pandemic that kept them out of the labs for some time. But they acknowledge the challenges that exist for women in STEM, and credit the iCons program for celebrating diversity and actively encouraging women to take leadership positions throughout the program.

“The iCons program offers an inclusive environment through both its courses and faculty,” says Jeet, an iCons junior majoring in biology who is on track to graduate from UMass Amherst a year early. “From the very first meeting at orientation, students are encouraged to solve a real-world problem of their choosing. We then lead our class discussions, research, and product ideas. It’s all very empowering.”

McIsaac adds that the supportive environment fostered by faculty and other students in the iCons program is motivating, which helps students find success. “It’s hard to find the time to do the work and do it well,” she notes. “But it helps that there are so many people that want you to succeed, people in your corner who are rooting for you. They help me think it’s worth it.”

Jacob Lindeman, iCons advisor and innovator in residence, agrees that the invested iCons faculty make a huge difference for students. He also credits the program’s interdisciplinary approach and core mission for the students’ enthusiasm and accomplishments. “[iCons] is a special setting that blends academics across various disciplines with a social imperative. MicrobeBlaster perfectly embodies that spirit — students felt engaged to make a difference, and then they showed up in every sense of the word.”

Women-led STEM ventures are still too rare in a male-dominated field, so the MicrobeBlasters team hopes that they can inspire other women in STEM to take the leap into launching their own businesses or product ventures.

“It is crucial to have more women pursuing entrepreneurship, and it’s a shame to imagine all of the incredible ideas that were never pursued out of fear,” adds Jeet. “I’ve seen some amazing women-led ventures already and can’t wait to see more in the future. ”

“We need more women to be encouraged in leadership, entrepreneurship, and STEM,” says Lasic-Ellis. “It is the collaborative efforts of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and stories that often lead to true progress, and that’s where the UMass iCons program can lead the way.”