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Nivatha Balendra has already achieved more than most people do in a lifetime. A proud Montrealais, Nivatha has discovered and named her own bacteria, received the World Economic Forum Prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and started a non-profit that mentors young scientists.
And she’s just 22 years old.
“It’s surreal,” she says of her early success. “It makes me happy and grateful and excited all at once.”
Nivatha was in high school when she became interested in the world’s inability to sustainably clean oil spills. Through research, she learned that there existed certain forms of bacteria (Pseudomonas fluorescens) in soil that produced molecular compounds capable of degrading oil organically. Intrepid, Nivatha immediately began sampling moist soil from her backyard on the Saint Lawrence River. Believing she may have found a new strain of the bacteria, Nivatha visited McGill University to examine the samples on a genetic level. The discovery was, indeed, novel. Nivatha humbly called this moment a “happy accident.”
This past September, Nivatha took her discovery to the Women in Cleantech Challenge, impressing a panel of esteemed judges, including legendary author and entrepreneur, Margaret Atwood. Nivatha’s potential solution (unlike most chemical detergents) is completely biodegradable and very affordable. If properly developed, her discovery could clean everything from oil sands tailing ponds to ocean rig spills. When you consider that a disaster like BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill cost $62 billion to clean up, Nivatha’s is the kind of solution that could revolutionize the global energy industry.
“There’s a clear, dire need for this in the cleantech sector,” says Nivatha. “I want to be the person to deliver it.”
The young scientist admits that she’s more comfortable in a lab than out courting corporate partners. But that’s the beauty of the Challenge. “I never identified as an entrepreneur until I made this discovery,” she says. “This is a great learning opportunity for me. I think my product is the solution the world’s been waiting for.”
Luckily, Nivatha has never been one to slow down.