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Wednesday, 29 January 2014 14:53

The Kudzu Cocktail, Cat Catch and other bright ideas from WCU students

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fr wcuentrepreneurJake Flannick • SMN Correspondent

For as long as he can remember, Austin Brown’s fascination with plants has remained rooted in their relationship with people.

 

The deep appreciation and knowledge farmers have for their crops, the use of different kinds of plants around the world that were cited in the memoirs and novels he remembers reading as a youngster — all of them helped form his wellspring of curiosity that has grown over the years.

“It was always just kind of a really mystical understanding to me,” said Brown, a sophomore at Western Carolina University, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology.

It is an intrigue that has led him to spend the past year or so envisioning a plan to capture part of the botanical essence of this region. It would come in the form of an alcoholic concoction, one consisting of herbs and other plants whose taste “would pull you back to a sensory experience,” he said.

“It would definitely be the Smokies,” Brown said of the taste of such a drink.

And it is why he is one of two students at Western who was selected by faculty there to bring their ideas to a state entrepreneurship forum at North Carolina A&T University, in Greensboro in February. That is where droves of undergraduate students from schools across the UNC system are expected to outline their visionary business plans, with the hope of attracting funding to help start a venture.

His idea was among a handful floated at a forum organized by the university last November, the first of its kind. The forum is similar to a program run by N.C. State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues, a research group aiming to encourage creativity among young people as a way to turn communities big and small into incubators for innovation.

The WCU forum, which is scheduled for next year and open to the public, is meant to spur ideas that would have a local impact.

Within five-minute window, students are expected to pitch their ideas to a panel of university faculty members in what probably feels like a “shark-tank kind of experience,” said Brian Railsback, the dean of Western Carolina’s Honors College.

But for Nick Heim, the other Western Carolina student whose idea also landed him a scheduled appearance at the state forum, it was just another glimpse into the kinds of scenarios in which he might find himself after graduation.

“I plan to end up in the business world either way,” said Heim, a junior who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship.

His idea involved developing a mobile app that would track the stops of the university shuttle bus with a GPS device. He calls it Cat Catch.

It is meant to address what he said is an issue many students there face: timing, or missing, its stops. Of the some 700 students he surveyed last semester, more than 90 percent of respondents said they would use the shuttle more often if they had a way to better determine whether it was running on time.

“Transportation is a real issue at Western,” Brown said. “We need a way to make it better.” 

Such ideas have emerged against the backdrop of a fledgling undergraduate research movement at Western, where about a dozen students who are part of the Honors College have gathered over the past year to exchange ideas in an effort to strengthen undergraduate research.

The group, called WheeSearch, emphasizes interdisciplinary thought. It could emerge as the first of its kind in the country, Railsback said. He acknowledged that while such groups are common, their focus rarely strays from a specific discipline.

It is expected to take shape by the fall of 2016 as it seeks funding and a formal involvement from faculty members.

“If you get a lot of people together from different majors, you’re going to hear things from a lot of different perspectives,” he said, adding that the group already has led to what he described as “raging discussions” among members.

That is particularly true about the botanical drink idea floated by Brown, the sophomore. He attributed discussions with members to the evolution of his idea over the past year, from an aspiration to open a Jackson County distillery whose recipes would involve native plants to concocting a drink made with only invasive ones whose culinary and medicinal uses are less recognized. (The name of the idea has changed, too, now dubbed “The Kudzu Cocktail,” after an invasive vine from Japan that has spread across the Southeast).

“Plants are a gold mine,” he said, noting that he also has had discussions with a friend who is studying flavor chemistry at another university. “Some of them are just forgotten.”

His ambition to create what he called a “drink of conservation” stems from his tasting of liquor in the French Alps this past year. The potent herb-flavored drink, he noted, was distinctly European.

Asked whether he believes there is a market here for such a concoction, he acknowledged the vibrant craft beer scene in Western North Carolina.

“This is one of the most biodiverse places in the world,” said Brown, who plans to spend next semester studying at a French winery as part of an internship, “Why can’t I do what they’re doing, here?”

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