While earning dual master’s degrees in environmental engineering and engineering technology innovation management at Carnegie Mellon University, Kwaku Jyamfi spent hours outside of class poring over the numbers for a startup business that makes generators to convert agricultural waste into a clean energy source.
He also found time to build the generator prototype — on his apartment porch in Bloomfield.
Jyamfi received the degrees in 2020 and ever since has been working full-time at growing the venture, Farm to Flame Energy, which now makes and tests its generators in a warehouse in Duquesne.
Among the contracts it’s landed, Jyamfi says, is an agreement to process paper pulp sludge into energy for Georgia-Pacific, one of the largest paper manufacturers in the world.
On Oct. 19, Farm to Flame was the top winner at the 2023 UpPrize Social Innovation Challenge, which recognizes Pittsburgh-area entrepreneurs who use technology to address social impact issues including economic justice, racial equity and sustainability.
Farm to Flame Energy received a total of $150,000 from UpPrize: $75,000 as the top entrant in the sustainability category and a $75,000 grand prize as the top overall winner.
Jyamfi, who envisions his company’s generator someday providing smokeless, odor-free and affordable electrical power in underserved places such as India and Africa, was one of nine entrepreneurs who competed in UpPrize’s final pitch event at PointView Hall in the Carnegie Science Center on Oct. 19.
Launched in 2015, UpPrize aims to “further the cause of social and inclusive entrepreneurship,” said Ven Raju, president and CEO of Innovation Works, a North Side nonprofit that provides seed funding and support to startups and which administered the challenge.
BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania funds UpPrize and — since the competition’s founding — has invested $2.8 million in prize money and technical assistance to the competitors, said Michael Keslar, president of BNY Mellon Pennsylvania.
Other top winners for the 2023 UpPrize Challenge were:
Sustainible, which won $75,000 in the economic justice category for a digital tool that helps businesses assess the health of their enterprises.
The female-, minority- and immigrant-owned firm wants to focus on assisting disadvantaged entrepreneurs and firms in marginalized communities, says Talpha Harris, Sustainible’s co-founder and CEO.
Korion Health, which makes an electronic stethoscope that lets individuals record their heart activity at home, won $75,000 in the racial equity category. The stethoscope will help eliminate barriers like transportation and high medical costs for individuals who need to monitor their heart conditions, says Anna Li, Korion’s co-founder and CEO.
A special award of $50,000 went to Testa-Seat, which makes adaptive and therapeutic seating for individuals with special needs. Testa-Seat competed in the sustainability category and received high scores across all three categories, said Keslar.
Jyamfi, 27, who grew up in West Orange, New Jersey, was an engineering undergraduate at Syracuse University when his friend and classmate, Will McKnight, suggested he check out a combustion device McKnight’s grandfather and uncle had patented to turn plant waste into energy.
When Jyamfi moved to Pittsburgh for graduate school, his co-founder joined him to commercialize their idea.
A classmate of Jyamfi’s at CMU, Stefano Alva, came on board to oversee the business financials and is now chief commercialization officer.
The firm now employs six, says Jyamfi. Among its largest investments to date was a $200,000 award the company won in 2022 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation’s Social Impact Investment Pitch Competition.
In addition to supplying systems for Georgia-Pacific, a Vermont furniture business and other customers, Farm to Flame has a three-year $3 million contract with chocolate producer Cocoa Processing Co. in Ghana to process waste from cocoa husks and turn it into energy.
“My family is from Ghana so I understand the problem of [securing] energy in developing nations,” says Jyamfi.
Farm to Flame will use its $150,000 UpPrize winnings “to really go after that commercialization,” says Jyamfi. “We want to get product traction and confirm the validity of this product. We’re very grateful that Pittsburgh decided to support us.”
The UpPrize challenge began in May with open applications. Innovation Works held a two-day bootcamp for applicants in June and semifinalists were selected in July.
An eight-member panel of judges included representatives from local universities, nonprofits and government.
For a complete list of the semifinalists, visit the UpPrize website.