Startup gives laymen tools to identify contaminants
You could call it a labor of love. Texas Tech University researcher Magdalena Rakowska is passionate about environmental science and innovations that make it easy for everyone to understand the quality of their surroundings. That's the overarching mission of the startup she co-founded called Envirostatus, a technology company to reduce contaminants in water, sediments, and air. It's one of the companies in the 2019-2020 Texas Tech Accelerator program at the Innovation Hub.
Research gets personal
Rakowska has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. She met her husband, Balaji Rao, in 2014 while both were working as postdoctoral researchers with Danny Reible, Ph.D., who holds the Maddox Distinguished Engineering Chair in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Construction Engineering. The trio still works on Texas Tech research projects. They are also co-founders of Envirostatus. The fourth member of the Envirostatus team is CMO Alex Smith, a graduate Ph.D. Research Assistant at the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Construction Engineering. Rakowska is the startup's CEO. She says, "Essentially our company focuses on putting devices in the field that capture samples of contaminants from water, sediments, and air. Then we bring the devices back to the lab, test the samples, and provide measurements to give a sense of the localized environment." She says the idea is to bring the science out of academia to the broader community. "It's so needed for other people to understand what we are doing, first of all, and how important it can be. Decisions are based on results. We have developed a method to make measurements understandable and more accessible. We want decision-makers to be able to use the data without hesitation and serve the purpose of their project." She adds, "In the future, the company may focus on personal devices that can measure an individual's exposure. I think through incremental steps we can eventually go broader and change the mindset, be more protective of the environment, and accelerate more technologies that are environmentally friendly."
Rakowska's journey into the field of scientific research began in Poland. She credits her high school chemistry teacher as the first of many female role models that inspired her to pursue a career in STEM. She says, "I had women instructors even during my undergrad years that would talk about chemistry like it was some kind of wonderful magical art. They were very good at inspiring me. Once they had your interest, they would gradually dive into more detail. It was the feminine touch added to hard science that captured my imagination and encouraged me to explore it." Rakowska was recently featured in a local news story about women in the STEM field.
As for entrepreneurship and hustle, Rakowska says that inspiration began at home. "It is important to be raised in an environment where there's a lot of independence. That teaches you strength. My mom was a teacher, but then she went into an entrepreneurial business. Necessity is sometimes the mother of invention. My mom was amazing in teaching me that you can do it." Rakowska says her husband also provides inspiration. "He has been very supportive in research as well as in starting the company. He was the one who would say, 'Just start it up. Go for it.' He definitely gave me a thumbs-up to begin the process of applying for the TTU Accelerator program." She adds Dr. Reible and the team's mentors at the Innovation Hub are great encouragers. "Danny drives that hustle, especially for researchers, to explore the direction of commercial application. Our mentors help me get over the fear stage and gain confidence to go forward."