The Road to Native Vegetation in Highway Design

Yulia Kuzovkina-Eischen, associate professor of plant science & landscape architecture, and John Campanelli, a graduate student, inspect the growth of native species planted on DOT property along U.S. RT 6 in North Windham on Aug. 29, 2016. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Graduate student John Campanelli, right, shown here with his adviser Professor Yulia Kuzovkina-Eischen, is working to commercialize software he developed to make roadside native plant projects more successful. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Connecticut is recognized nationally for highways with beautiful historic architecture, like the bridges along the Merritt Parkway. Yet the vegetation along the roadside tends to look the same for miles on end.

UConn graduate student John Campanelli hopes that someday soon, drivers will have a much more scenic and varied view.

There’s no question that regional vegetation is a better ecological choice, but now it can also be a better economical one. — John Campanelli

With the help of a growing entrepreneurship program, Accelerate UConn, Campanelli is developing software called iConservationist to guide highway design, with a focus on native, biodiverse plant communities and pollinator habitats.

Today, the vegetation along New England’s highways is dominated by a non-native, fast-growing turfgrass that is mowed short, to just a few inches high. This sod is often chosen by departments of transportation for its ability to take root quickly, but it doesn’t occur naturally in New England and grows from seeds manufactured predominantly in the Western United States.

Campanelli had the idea for this technology while conducting research for his master’s degree in ecological restoration at UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources. He was working with the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) on a project to transition roadside vegetation from non-native turfgrass to more sustainable native warm season grasses and wildflowers.

Although the native plants can grow naturally in New England and state transportation agencies recognize the benefits of using them, Campanelli discovered that DOTs were having trouble making the switch from turfgrass.

“The entire process requires significant time, effort, and commitment – from analyzing a site’s soil and microclimate, to selecting ideal species to plant, to monitoring and maintenance after planting,” he says. “I knew this technology could make establishing sustainable, ecofriendly roadside vegetation habitats more successful.”

It’s not just about improving the view for motorists, either. There are countless advantages to using a biodiverse combination of native warm season grasses and wildflowers along our highways.

For instance, traditional turfgrass contributes to the disruption of natural habits for important pollinators like bees, birds, and bats, along with other factors such as development infringing on existing ecosystems. When a pollinator’s preferred environment is altered, the population eventually becomes fragmented and vulnerable. In fact, the U.N. recently reported that 40 percent of pollinators currently face extinction, which could have major repercussions for the world’s food supply and the future health of ecosystems. Using native plants instead of turfgrass along vehicle corridors is advantageous because it provides connections between ecosystems and lets pollinators migrate easily to find new food sources.

There are also significant cost savings associated with using native warm season grasses – if they survive. While traditional turfgrass needs mowing three to five times a year, wildflowers and native grasses only need to be mowed or maintained once per year, which reduces fuel and personnel costs. But knowing when is the best time to mow can be a challenge.

Along with the fuel and personnel savings from reduced mowing, native plants also act as a natural deterrent to erosion. While standard turfgrass roots reach approximately six inches into the ground, native warm season grasses root as deep as six feet. Reduced erosion means that highway infrastructure requires less costly repair and maintenance.

iConservationist helps planting projects succeed by taking the guess work out for users. The software simplifies the complex transition process by better calculating project costs and seed rates, improving how information about a project is stored and shared, and identifying ideal times for maintenance activities to occur.

“There’s no question that regional vegetation is a better ecological choice, but now it can also be a better economical one,” says Campanelli. “iConservationist will help DOTs protect their investment, at the same time they’re helping to protect the environment.”

To move his technology closer to market, Campanelli applied to Accelerate UConn, a program that helps aspiring entrepreneurs validate their ideas for innovative products and services. Based on the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps curriculum, Accelerate UConn provides participants with rigorous training, a small seed grant, and connections with industry experts in appropriate fields.

The program, which is the only NSF I-Corps site in the state, is jointly operated by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI), housed in the School of Business.

“There is a wealth of technologies coming out of UConn labs that could be commercialized with the right set of tools,” says Jeff Seemann, UConn’s vice president for research. “Accelerate UConn helps early-stage ideas move beyond the lab, join the ranks of other successful Connecticut startups, and have an impact in our communities and our state economy.”

For seven weeks, Campanelli and the other would-be entrepreneurs in Accelerate UConn’s second cycle spent numerous hours in the classroom and in the field, conducting interviews with potential customers. The goal is to understand the customer, channels, pricing, and other parts of the business model before actually launching a business.

Teams that successfully complete Accelerate UConn are much better positioned to succeed as entrepreneurs in the future, says UConn professor of business and CCEI faculty director, Timothy Folta. “One of the most potent criticisms of university technology commercialization is that technologists do not have a good understanding about whether customers really want their technology because they are enamored with it. Accelerate UConn aims to correct this bias.”

A horticulturist by trade, Campanelli credits Accelerate UConn with showing him what it takes to be an entrepreneur. In particular, it demonstrated the importance of being decisive and the value of a good business team.

“I was dedicated to getting out there and finding early adopters for my technology. It was a big commitment,” he said. “That’s what you need to be a successful entrepreneur: a singular focus. You have to be committed, for yourself and the other people on your team. You can’t just dabble, you have to set goals and meet them. You have to take that leap.”

Campanelli is continuing to “take the leap” and commercialize his iConservationist software. He is currently looking for grants to advance his technology, as well as partners with programming expertise.

To date, approximately 20 teams have successfully completed the Accelerate UConn program. Applications are currently being accepted for the fall 2016 cycle, which begins in October. The deadline is Sept. 9. For more information and to access the application, go to www.accelerate.uconn.edu.