There’s a group of West Virginia University students who want to bring innovation and entrepreneurship to their communities, creating new opportunities in farming, food, and fashion. They’re the first cohort to be selected for the WVU Davis College Young Innovators Fellowship Program.

Funded by a $157,000 grant from The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and $100,000 from Farm Credit, the program will provide 10 students each year with the skills to enhance and sustain the rural economy of West Virginia, while building the entrepreneurial career of their dreams.

“West Virginians spend more than $7 billion on food every year, but less than 10 percent of that is from in-state production,” said Matt Wilson, a professor in the Davis College’s School of Agriculture and Food and coordinator of the Young Innovators program.

“The markets exist for agricultural and natural resources business growth, design ideas from wood and fibers for all kinds of products, including clothing and accessories, and innovations in food, nutrition and outdoor activity and all kinds of other commercial activity that make rural communities vital,” Wilson said. “These Davis College students will tap into those markets and build West Virginia’s economy.”

The first Young Innovators, selected through a competitive application process, are:

• Mary-Kate Barker, human nutrition and foods and finance, Apollo, Pa.
• Alexandra Breitsameter, fashion, dress and merchandising with a minor in business administration, Frederick, Md.
• Abigail Gottshall, human nutrition and foods with a minor professional writing and editing, Caldwell, W.Va.
• McCartney Johnson, human nutrition and foods, Cincinnati, Ohio
• Avery Ives, fashion design and merchandising with minors in business administration and communications studies, Malvern, Pa.
• Reggie Nieman, environmental and energy resource management, Bruceton Mills, W.Va.
• Jade Och, human nutrition and foods, Glen Dale, W.Va.
• Ashley Nicole Riffe, animal and nutritional sciences, Charleston, W.Va.
• Demi Sadock, fashion, dress and merchandising with minors in business and entrepreneurial studies, Hershey, Pa.
• Kelsey Williams, human nutrition and foods, Lewisburg, W.Va.

Several of the members of the program’s resource team, including those in the private sector with entrepreneurial experience themselves, noted how impressed they were with the applicants.

One the students selected, Breitmsameter has already launched her own custom shirt business, “and I knew I could benefit tremendously from a mentor’s support and some additional start-up funding,” she said. “I hope I’m handling everything right now, from product design, to marketing, purchasing, order fulfillment, production and shipping. I hope to get guidance and advice to help me improve the production speed of completing my products because of the high volume of orders I’m receiving.”

Each student innovator will receive annual support to continue to develop the innovation they have proposed, so long as they continue to meet program requirements and show good progress in moving toward developing their entrepreneurial and innovation skills. They will work with a faculty advisor to develop a Young Entrepreneur Success (YES) Plan as a guide to their specific participation in the program.

“I really am most excited to learn the ropes of the entrepreneurial world and start something of my own,” said Barker. She wants to develop resources to help people live healthier lives.

Jade Och hopes “to take away a feeling of accomplishment by helping the well-being of the population and the economic welfare of our state. I want to bring farmers directly to consumers with their crops to boost our own economy, lower food waste, and help provide the population with fresh, locally grown produce.”

Wilson said, “We have high hopes for cultivating and enhancing students’ understanding of innovation and look forward to engaging the resource team and other mentors to help some of our most innovative students to make it to the next level.”

Dan Robison, dean of the Davis College, added, “We have an obligation to help our students return to their home counties, and anywhere else they want to go, equipped with the skills and ideas necessary to be successful innovators and entrepreneurs in every field and discipline they pursue. The support of the Benedum Foundation and Farm Credit attests to the need to send our graduates out into our communities ready to be successful. This special program advances that long-held goal.”

The $157,000 Benedum grant and $100,000 Farm Credit gifts were made in conjunction with A State of Minds: The Campaign for West Virginia’s University. The $1 billion comprehensive campaign being conducted by the WVU Foundation on behalf of the University runs through December 2017.



CONTACT: David Welsh, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design

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