The annual West Virginia Vanguard Agricultural Competition honors innovation and ingenuity in agriculture by recognizing an entrepreneur whose idea had the greatest potential to solve logistical challenges in the local food supply chain.
This year, the winner of the 2017 West Virginia Vanguard Agricultural Design Competition is a first-generation American from Iran.
Nima Shahab Shahmir, 23, of Lewisburg, was selected for his environmentally sustainable packaging made from the roots of mushrooms. Shahab Shahmir’s Future Fungi uses mushroom mycelium to grow organic recycled products and materials in just two weeks. He will receive more than $10,000 in business assistance from the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI), which sponsors the yearly competition to recognize innovation in agriculture.
“[The award] was really exciting,” Shahab Shahmir said, “and I was honored to be selected for this honor and opportunity.”
RCBI will assist Shahab Shahmir with product design and development; logo creation and marketing; patent, trademark and copyright applications; business development planning; funding opportunities; and business incubator space.
The award was presented to Shahab Shahmir on Feb. 13, during the annual West Virginia Small Farm Conference in Charleston by state Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt and Bill Woodrum, project coordinator for RCBI’s Agricultural Innovations initiative.
“Mr. Shahab Shahmir’s product is a unique proprietary process for replacing plastics used in packaging with all natural mushroom mycelium,” Woodrum said. “There are great market opportunities for a green alternative to plastics. Nima’s product is biodegradable and much more environmentally friendly than other materials on the market. We look forward in helping him bring Future Fungi to market.”
The packaging is not only strong and durable but can be recycled and used as mulch. The organic material breaks down in two to three weeks, providing additional nutrients to the soil.
“The product and business is still in its very early stages, but I feel very fortunate that I will have RCBI helping me,” Shahab Shahmir said. “It’s too early to think about the future, but hopefully this will lead us to getting this product to the wholesale market and environmentally friendly consumers that want to use it.”
Shahab Shahmir says his success as a budding inventor “was meant to be.” As a boy in Tehran, Iran, his father introduced him to computers. “I’d take them apart and put them back together again,” he said. Now, a college sophomore majoring in computer science at WVU Tech in Montgomery, Shahab Shahmir said his accomplishment would not have been possible without the support of his parents. He and his parents immigrated to the United States seven years ago from Tehran, capping a 16-year immigration process that began when he was just a baby.
Shahab Shahmir’s father is a chef at The General Lewis and his mother is known as “The Persian Baker” at the Lewisburg Farmers Market. He said his family specifically chose to settle in Lewisburg for its small-town atmosphere, as well as for the natural beauty of West Virginia.
“I’ve never actually planted a garden,” he said, “but I have lots of good friends who are involved in agriculture here. I can help in this way. I have big ideas for this state.”
The Vanguard contest is part of RCBI’s Agricultural Innovations, an initiative to improve opportunities for West Virginia’s farming and agricultural economy. The initiative supports and enhances a vibrant local foods system by promoting entrepreneurship and innovation. RCBI also helps food producers, distributors and buyers expand their reach and influence through advanced manufacturing practices and product development. West Virginia residents – including students of all ages – and out-of-state residents enrolled in West Virginia colleges and universities are eligible to compete.
“The entrepreneurs we assist day in and day out at our Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centers clearly demonstrate there is no shortage of innovation in West Virginia,” said Charlotte Weber, RCBI director and CEO.