Two years ago, Jennifer Berdyugin was on the stage with her team for the Invent Oregon 2017 competition finals. The audience was seated in tiers that stretched up in front of her and after months of preparation, she was feeling ready to pitch the idea of a renewable energy-powered barley malter to the public.
If someone told her then that in a few years she’d be teaching and advising students preparing for the 2020 Invent Oregon competition, she might not have believed it.
But that’s exactly what Jennifer, who serves as lab manager for the Oregon Institute of Technology’s Renewable Energy Center in Klamath Falls and teaches engineering to undergraduates is up to these days.
“I’m really excited about where I’m at right now,” Jennifer says. “I love working with students and I hope to see my students going on and competing at InventOR and doing even better than we did.”
As a senior project in 2017, Jennifer, a renewable energy engineering student at Oregon Tech, led a team of other engineering students to develop what became the Micromalter.
The challenge, put out by the Oregon State University Extension Center in Klamath Falls, was to find a way to add value to the local barley crop. Jennifer’s team came up with the idea to build a machine that could produce barley malt in small batches for beer brewers.
For two years, they worked out the details of the design: how much torque was needed for the drum, how to power the operation using geothermal heat. Their eyes were on the Catalyze Klamath Falls competition — the local student invention competition run by Oregon Tech.
At that time, the team’s eyes were only on the local prize. “We didn’t even know what Invent Oregon was until Juan (Barraza) showed up and started handing out awards,” says Jennifer.
Micromalter placed third at Catalyze Klamath and was selected to advance to Invent Oregon 2017. Meanwhile, Jennifer graduated and the students had to move the Mircromalter project — which had a footprint of 4 feet by 6 feet and was 10 feet tall — off of university property.
They ended up in an uninsulated potato storage barn at the OSU Extension Center where through the summer heat the team tested batches of barley, running it through the weeklong cycle to see if they could produce a high-quality malt. They made tweaks to the design along the way.
“Our end goal was to get it into the hands of a brewer, but we ran out of time before the InventOR finals,” Jennifer says.
The team was also considering different business plans. Would they sell the machine to breweries to make their own malt? Produce the malt themselves and sell it to the breweries? What about developing a smaller version of the machine for home brewers? In the end the model they took with them to the finals was producing the malt for sale to breweries.
“People were really excited about it. If we started a micromalting facility in Oregon, brewers would be able to make an entirely Oregon beer,” says Jennifer, who talked to small brewers in Oregon as part of the business model research. “Most barley malt comes more from the Midwest and there was no large malt facility in Oregon.”
The excitement generated by the potential for the Micromalter — which also included the ability to produce organic malt and the fact that it ran on a renewable energy source — boosted the confidence of the team as they got ready for the InventOR Finals in Portland. They loaded the Micromalter on a trailer and headed for the OMSI where they pitched the idea to a full house at the museum’s Empirical Theater.
“We had given our pitch at Catalyze Klamath, but we learned so much during the workshops for InventOR that our pitch at OMSI was way better,” Jennifer says. “But we were still pretty nervous. We hadn’t tried selling, we didn't have any track record or data, we just knew the general public was pretty excited about it.”
Despite the buzz, Team Micromalter didn’t take home any of the InventOR prizes. The machine returned to the potato barn where it spent a chilly winter. Other team members graduated and moved on to other priorities. Barley production started to lose value and decrease production. Jennifer found that keeping the Micromalter project going on her own wasn’t going to be viable.
Instead, she found another path when she started teaching electrical and renewable energy classes at Oregon Tech and landed the job as lab manager for the state-funded Renewable Energy Center there. This fall, Jennifer started work on a Master’s degree in renewable energy. She’s passionate about teaching engineering ethics and entrepreneurship.
“Whenever I see students working on projects I encourage them to apply to Catalyze Klamath Falls and Invent Oregon,” she says. “You learn different things in those programs than what you learn in the classroom.”
When she considers her future, she can easily picture herself staying in academia, but her experience with Micromalter means that she wouldn’t rule out another entrepreneurial venture in her future.
“Definitely the biggest lesson I learned was not to be afraid to try,” Jennifer says of her Invent Oregon experience. “We are engineers, we’re not business people If you just give it your best and are willing to learn new things. You can go really far with that.”