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Vertical Vegetation

By Erica Levi Zelinger, Assistant Director of Communication, Pennoni Honors College

Biome waiting room

Biome's biowalls remove toxins like formaldehyde and benzene from the air you breathe. The living wall is designed to save you floorspace, help you live a healthier life, and reconnect you to the powerful benefits of nature.

Collin Cavote breathed a little easier this winter, when all his friends were holed up in their apartments, dreading the heavy snowfall, cursing climate change, and longing for the greenery of spring.

Collin’s company, Biome, sprouted in January, when it signed with United by Blue, a Philadelphia-based clothing company, to sell its indoor biowalls in-store and online. Hung like a picture on the wall and controlled by an app that tells you when it is thirsty or in need of its vitamin, a biowall mimics nature in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, purifying indoor air, and bringing nature inside.

And though the product, which will retail for around $300, is still in the product development stage, what started as a seed of an idea on a rural homestead in Vancouver, Canada, is now blooming in Philadelphia.

Borrowed from a term in ecology where similar environments and ecosystems exist in different locations, Collin’s business aims to be the largest manmade biome in the world, importing nature to the indoor environment. The infant company is already a finalist in the ab+c Creative Intelligence Lightning in a Bottle Competition and one of 50 in Founder.org’s Class of 2015 competition. Collin recently returned from Paris, where he received a $10,000 business grant as part of the Founder.org program.

Collin, a 27-year-old junior biomimicry major, is part of Drexel’s Custom-Designed Major, a program in the Pennoni Honors College. His major combines biology with product design and entrepreneurship – using nature as a source of inspiration to develop solutions for environmental issues such as climate change. Collin will complete a Close School of Entrepreneurship Co-op in September, and he is also the recipient of a 2014 Udall Scholarship, honoring students committed to careers in the environment.

While their respective foci are in different fields, Collin recruited fellow Custom-Design Majors (or “Custies” as they call themselves) Dawn McDougall, an Ecological Thought, Perception and Visual Sensation major, and Mik Schulte, a junior Corporate Policy and Environmental Risk Management major, to work with him as Communications Director and Risk Assessor, respectively.

“All of us are passionate about creating and supporting more sustainable enterprises,” Collin says. “Dawn communicates the vision of Biome through blog and newsletter. Mik, the balloon popper, helps make sure Biome is heading in a financially viable direction.”

And Collin? 

“His vision and passion are infectious,” Mik says. “Working with Collin has been truly amazing, because he's a natural leader.”

But things weren’t always this clear for Collin.

“The world I was growing up in seemed flawed,” he said in a TED Talk at Drexel in November. “Everywhere I looked, I saw humanity mismanaging the planet we live on and the resources that surround us – resource extraction, excessive consumption, pollution, and wastefulness. As a business student, I felt personally accountable to not perpetuate those practices. I didn’t want to be part of the problem, and so I stopped.”

In May 2008, the then-18-year-old Collin left his entrepreneurship undergrad program conflicted about how to put his degree toward creating products that wouldn’t hurt the environment. He dumped his cell phone, got rid of his laptop, and boarded an Amtrak train for Seattle, and soon after, a six-person plane to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Vancouver. And for four months he learned how to live with a small environmental footprint.

The headstrong, conscientious, interdisciplinary thinker lived on a 40-acre rural homestead and spent time at an organic farm where he gathered many of the foods he ate. He lived in a trailer, woke up on the land, and walked into the fields to pick his breakfast each morning.

And every day, the “professional vagabond,” as he called himself, would stroll down to a private bay where he could look out over the Puget Sound and see the Olympic Mountains rising in the distance. To the right of the mountain range, enormous ships – oil tankers he came to find out – would pass by, heading south from Alaskan oil fields.

For months Collin watched these ships slide across the horizon, and all he could think about was oil, carbon dioxide, and climate. If there was a way to help the planet better process its carbon dioxide, there might be a way to manage the effects of climate change happening around us.

“Humans have usurped nature,” Collin said in his TED Talk. “I may live a sustainable life, but others still aren’t.”

In an effort to incubate healthy companies, Collin was prepared to return to school and study sustainability, but he was wary of a structured program. He’d spent years charting his own path.

Determined to parlay his interest and dedication to environmental sustainability – and help businesses work in harmony with the planet – Collin researched individualized major programs, liked Drexel’s, and came to be a Custie. He is constantly borrowing theories and expertise from biomimicry for entrance into the carbon market.

“The international carbon market is huge, and we need to capitalize on that,” Mik says. “The beauty of Biome is that we're a private sector company. The government will not lead the charge on reducing carbon emissions, but the private sector will because it will soon be profitable to do so.”