5 social entrepreneurship projects at U of T you should know about

The foam peanuts that protect fragile deliveries can pile up in landfills.

Concerned about packaging waste, University of Toronto students redesigned the pellets using potato starch, which is biodegradable and still squishy enough to protect fragile objects. The material is so natural you can even eat it – the prototype tastes like flavourless popcorn.

EcoPackers is one of the many initiatives springing out of Enactus U of T, a student group of 80 entrepreneurs who value making a difference in the world.

“Interest in social entrepreneurship has been rising for years, especially among younger generations who seek to contribute to a more conscious capitalism,” said Keri Damen, managing director of U of T entrepreneurship and lead advisor to Enactus.

Interns at startups do more than fetch coffee

Internships at big companies have long been a rite of passage for college and university students, a sought-after and often rewarding foot in the door of the corporate workplace.

But, in a sign of the changing times, some institutions are thinking smaller with the placements they’re offering. The result – internships at startups are becoming common.

“Most people have a vague idea of what a startup really is,” says Alon Eisenstein, internship program co-ordinator at the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre. “This gives students an opportunity to see the inner workings.”

The Impact Centre, the university’s science-oriented startup accelerator, is now in its fourth year of co-ordinating work placements for undergraduate students at startups, or those companies with typically a handful of employees.

The next blockbuster? U of T startup Protagenic Therapeutics goes public on U.S. stock market

The fortuitous discovery of an ancient gene, which made the leap from bacteria to animals hundreds of millions of years ago, could be the next billion-dollar breakthrough in the antidepressant market.

Bigger than Prozac? Maybe.

A game-changer in the industry if approved? Absolutely, says David Lovejoy, a U of T neuroendocrinology professor.

The company, Protagenic Therapeutics, founded on research conducted in Lovejoy’s lab at the Ramsay Wright building, took a leap forward by getting listed on the New York-based OTCQB stock exchange, considered a stepping stone to the NASDAQ.

“This is an entirely new gene, a new process and a paradigm shift in terms of how we look at drugs to relate to stress-associated pathology like depression, anxiety, addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder and even some of the more psychotic conditions like bipolar and schizophrenia,” Lovejoy explains.

“This could lead to an entirely novel approach to treat addiction.”

Indoor farming takes root at U of T Mississauga

At University of Toronto Mississauga, a plastic tower sprouts produce including curly starbor kale, buttercrunch and collard greens.

Rising almost six feet off the ground and illuminated by high output fluorescent bulbs, the indoor farm wall grows plants hydroponically – with nutrient solution, instead of soil. The water nourishes the roots, collects in a gutter and then recirculates back to a nutrient tank that feeds back into the hydroponic system.

The farm wall was the idea of Master of Science in Sustainability Management (MScSM) students Conner Tidd and Kevin Jakiela who partnered with Modular Farms Co., which specializes in vertical farming systems, to create distribution channels and services.

“You can grow pretty much anything,” Jakiela says. “Here, we’ve already grown three different types of lettuce, Genovese basil, joi choi, peppermint and parsley.”

From seed to harvest, it takes about four weeks to grow leafy greens and herbs.