When faced with problems that bother her – environmental crisis, mental health challenges, violence in our society – Audrey Larson’s solution is to create. To invent.
“The things that frustrate me, the things that anger me about the world – I can solve them and be productive about them,” explains Larson ’25 (ENG), who begins her sophomore year studying material sciences and civil engineering at UConn this fall. “I feel like engineering and problem solving, creating a business, it’s all a way of doing my part to try and change the things that anger me even, if it’s just a little bit.”
She was awarded her first U.S. patent while she was still a high school student. She designed a rotating carbon abatement panel system – a canopy of plants – that could be used to help filter out carbon dioxide emissions over paved surfaces, like highways.
“I’m a huge environmentalist,” she says, “and one of my inventions is about that and about helping change what seems like the most overwhelming issue of our time.”
Another invention was spurred by the anger and anxiety she felt after the Parkland High School shooting. She was awarded her second U.S. patent, this time for a movable bulletproof barrier system designed for use in school classrooms, in 2021.
While she calls invention “her true passion,” her newest entrepreneurial endeavors – two companies founded in partnership with her boyfriend and fellow rising sophomore Angel Velasquez ’25 (ENG) – are very much in sync with her personal mission to better the world around her.
“We were just hanging out one evening, and I had this idea – why don’t we make some sort of charity partnership company?” she says. “I pitched the idea to him, and that night we bought $500 worth of equipment for the business. We were like, ‘We’re going to do this!’ And I think I scared my parents, because they were like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
Parental doubts aside, the couple dove head first into the idea. The result is their retail apparel company Unfolded, which launched earlier this year. Their company aims to partner with young artists as well as charitable organizations, using a portion of the proceeds from sales of items featuring exclusive artwork to support nonprofit organizations that resonate with the artist’s work and values.
They started with one artist, fellow UConn student Matilyn Elkin, and their charitable partner Art With Impact, which seeks to promote mental wellness by creating space for young people to connect through art. Their initial designs are available on T-shirts and tote bags, each one printed by hand on a single fabric printing press – sometimes during the wee hours of the morning, as they work to fill a growing number of orders as well as the demand they’ve found at the fairs and farmers markets they attended over the summer.
“When we go to fairs, people love the idea of what we’re doing,” Velasquez says. “We definitely have found good support.”
“We actually just got an independent study with a professor here who’s going to try to help us scale up, because we’re getting to a point where we’re almost too busy for the two of us,” Larson says.
The couple is also working together on a project with another UConn student, Charlotte Chen ’24 (ENG, CLAS), that started through Innovate Wellness, a program offered by Student Health and Wellness that engages students to come together and develop innovative solutions for health and wellness concerns that they find on campus. Through their company, Geomate, they’re building an app to connect students with trusted friends to help keep them safe while they’re walking alone on campus.
The idea stemmed from a club event Larson attended at UConn, where survivors of sexual assault spoke out about what had happened to them and how it had impacted their lives.
“Although all of their experiences were so different, the one thing that was common amongst them was that they all had anxiety after,” says Larson. “Our app is really designed for the college student. You put in the planned path around campus that you want to walk, and then if you veer off that path, emergency contacts that you choose get notified. It creates reassurance without causing more anxiety. I think of it like an extra buffer – you don’t have to reach out to the police, but you can have a safety net.”
While building an app coincides with his computer science studies, Velasquez has found benefits beyond academics from his joint entrepreneurial ventures with Larson, and he plans to take those lessons with him after college, in a career he hopes will be focused on cybersecurity.
“As an entrepreneur, you understand that you’re not going to be successful with everything,” he says. “There have definitely been times where things have slowed down for us, but we still just keep adapting. We figure out how and where we went wrong. We go back to the drawing board. What can we do better? That ability to adapt to whatever circumstances you’re given is a very big thing from entrepreneurship for me.”
Larson hopes to one day work earn her Ph.D. and continue working in an academic lab – “I have known since high school that I wanted to be in a lab,” she says. “I love lab work.”
But she expects she’ll always be working a side hustle as well.
“That would be the dream, to be a professor and then have some sort of green materials or environmental consulting company on the side,” she says. “One thing that I highly recommend is starting your own business. Side hustles are great. I recommend that everyone have a side hustle at some point in their life. It’s not necessarily sustainable, but just do it. If it fails, whatever, you tried, it’s cool. Just put yourself out there.”
And they both credit UConn programs – including support from the Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, SHaW, the IDEA Grant Program, and OPIM Innovate – for offering opportunities to students at all levels of their academic career to explore opportunities to innovate and create.
“UConn has plenty of programs that you can do to literally just try something,” Velasquez says. “If it doesn’t work, you don’t really lose anything. You really just gain, because you gain that experience.”
“I think UConn is very supportive of creative endeavors, and it would be a shame not to apply for the grants that they have,” Larson says. “And if you have an idea, and you don’t have the means to do it – because we couldn’t just pour our personal money into this – it’s a shame to not at least apply and give it a shot. Because there’s too many cool things that they offer. There’s opportunities for entrepreneurial stuff, research – you’ll find something that fits what you need.”
To learn more about entrepreneurial opportunities available to students at UConn, visit entrepreneurship.uconn.edu.