Amelia Martin ‘23 ’25 (CAHNR) never saw herself becoming an entrepreneur.
An enthusiastic environmentalist, she thought maybe she’d work as a farmer, with plants and animals, or in a lab. In her spare time, she planned to make frequent trips to the Rhode Island shore, where she loves to surf.
But a visit to Haiti in 2019 ignited something in Martin that profoundly changed the course of her life. She went to a beach there, and it was littered with garbage and debris. And despite her best efforts, she couldn’t shake the image from her mind.
“It ignited something powerful inside me,’’ she says. “I never felt so strongly about anything in my life.’’
Passion Led to Creation of Company Called ‘Mud Rat’
Determined to do her part to reduce pollution, Martin started thinking about ways to make surfboards, which she had started to shape and design, more eco-friendly. The center of a traditional surfboard is composed of Styrofoam, which not only produces toxic dust during production, but takes 500 years to decompose.
Martin’s new company, called Mud Rat, is creating an innovative, organic surfboard core. She discovered that mycelium, the tough root of mushrooms, can be used as an alternative to Styrofoam. Mycelium grows quickly and in just a week she can produce enough material for multiple boards. She then bakes it, or heats it with a blowtorch, to prevent mushroom-cap growth.
Later this month, Mud Rat will compete in the Wolff New Venture Competition for a share of $50,000 in new business funding. Mud Rat is one of six UConn-affiliated startups to participate in the event, which is the School of Business’ pinnacle entrepreneurship challenge.
U.S. Surfboard Industry Is Strong
The irony of her hobby-turned-career is not lost on Martin. Most people would expect surf enthusiasts to develop their passion in California or Hawaii.
“As a kid I wanted to be a surfer…in Connecticut of all places,’’ Martin says. “I fell in love with surfing and surfboards.’’
The surfboard industry in the United States is robust. Some 400,000 surfboards are produced here each year, and most have a lifespan of just two years. Surfers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly surfboards, Martin says, and she believes her customers will come through surf shops or online sales.
A Mud Rat surfboard is slightly heavier and stronger than a traditional board, making it ideal for use on the East Coast and by hobbyists. Although her company (formerly called Project Clean Surf) just formed in March, her progress has been rapid. She is now improving prototypes and setting up an executive team, designing a website, and creating a logo and related merchandise.
One surprising aspect of the business is the amount of attention that her innovation has created.
Mycelium is strong, heat-resistant, and somewhat water resistant. Various strains are being used by others for clothing, furniture, flooring, and packaging. “There are always solutions in weird places,’’ Martin says.
People are fascinated by the concept of something organic replacing something man-made, she says. She has received encouragement from a range of people, including medical experts, who tell her she’s inspiring, and to keep up the good work.
“My favorite thing is seeing people in awe because they didn’t know about it. That’s something I didn’t expect,’’ she says. “It’s so cool to connect with and inspire others, and getting people to think about something in a new way. I’m having a great time right now.’’
The name “Mud Rat” came from a friendly nickname that one of her friends bestowed on her. It is well suited to the surf community, where the quirky names are celebrated.
“I just loved the name,’’ Martin says. “In the surf/skate/snowboard community, companies are all about short, memorable, weird names, so I thought it was perfect.’’
‘I’m Obsessed and I Love It’
Martin earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental studies last spring and is now a UConn graduate student, studying plant science. Business was something she had little familiarity with until this year. Through a series of entrepreneurship courses and competitions, she was able to develop her knowledge of how to design and run a company.
Carol Atkinson-Palombo, professor in the Department of Geography, and Melissa Berkey, assistant director in the Office of Undergraduate Research, encouraged Martin to pursue her innovation. Martin placed third this spring in the School of Business’ Innovation Quest (iQ) competition. Her success earned an invitation to the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation’s Summer Fellowship business accelerator.
Martin says that through iQ she learned to dream big, and during Summer Fellowship she took the steps to implement those dreams, by devising financial plans, yearly projections, trademarks and a social media plan.
“I knew absolutely nothing about business, except for a little bit about customer discovery,’’ Martin says. “Through Innovation Quest and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation’s Summer Fellowship, I’m now the ‘business expert’ around my friends. I’m even considering pursuing an MBA.’’
“One of the big things that happened is that I’ve learned to delegate,’’ she says. “In the CCEI Summer Fellowship, one of the mentors said, ‘Smart people get smarter people to work for them.’ I’ve been running with it.’’
Martin says she can envision her company selling surfboards worldwide in the next few years. She also has ideas for other surf-related products, but is tackling it one step at a time.
Sometimes it is difficult to be an entrepreneur and to keep pushing forward. Some days are easy, and some are brutal, she says.
“Someone asked me, ‘What would make you stop?’’’ Martin says. “The truth is there isn’t a low that’s low enough to make me want to stop this. This is what I want, and something the world needs. I’m obsessed, and I love it!’’
The Wolff New Venture Competition will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 17 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the School of Business’ GBLC, Second Floor, 100 Constitution Plaza, Hartford. All are welcome. Please pre-register at https://ccei.uconn.edu/wolff-new-venture-competition