Story and photos by Jim Graham
Shaw Innovation Explorers
take learning beyond
the classroom with
entrepreneurial curiosity.

The Age of Exploration

The Age of Exploration
Story and photos by Jim Graham
Shaw Innovation Explorers take learning beyond the classroom with entrepreneurial curiosity.

The Age of Exploration

The Age of Exploration
Being a Shaw Innovation Explorer isn’t always fun and games.
letter s
ure, there’s the three-day trip to northern Maine, with whitewater rafting, a ropes course challenge and a beautiful rustic lodge. There’s the crazy “ShoeGolf” tournament, when they toss shoes into goals outside Paul College. And they meet with leading entrepreneurs and industry pioneers to brainstorm ideas and develop their own career networks.

But then, there are fish guts: tails, heads and other pungent parts piled high in plastic barrels in the bait room of the Yankee Fishermen’s Cooperative in Seabrook. It’s a key stop on a tour of the member-owner co-op, which works closely with UNH Sea Grant on fisheries and ocean research.

The students’ universal reaction: “Ewww …”

But the scholars soon learn that a lobster boat can’t leave port without a ready supply of bait, ice and fuel — along with a costly and sophisticated array of traps, special ropes, safety equipment and other gear that must comply with an increasingly complex web of state and federal regulations. By the time the students head back to Durham, the price of lobster will seem like a bargain.

“People might not think about it when they see all these boats out there on a nice day,” says Kaitlin Phair, a junior who was in the first cohort of Shaw Explorers in 2021 and is a mentor to the current cohort. “But here, you see how fishing isn’t even just about getting food. It’s about making a living.”

It’s that type of curiosity and genuine interest in learning through hands-on experiences that are hallmarks of the Shaw Innovation Explorers Program at UNH, now in its second year as part of the Peter T. Paul Entrepreneurship Center, or ECenter. Its aim: to foster the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.

The program is the brainchild of David Shaw ’73, CEO of Black Point Group; his brother, John Shaw, CEO of Itaconix; and the Shaw family. Their vision is to give UNH sophomores hands-on, high-impact experiences that show how an entrepreneurial spirit and innovative ideas create opportunities in the real world — not only in business, but in the arts, government, nonprofits and industries that are traditional parts of the New Hampshire and New England economy. Each scholar receives scholarship support for the year, intended to give them time to immerse themselves in the program that they might otherwise have used for working a part-time job.

To be selected, students must show they have taken on pursuits that reveal their adventurous, curious and creative spirit. Examples have included students who have started their own businesses, won hack-a-thon and idea-a-thon competitions and managed the UNH student-run Rines Angel Investment Fund. Those are vital qualities for budding entrepreneurs, says Ian Grant, who was executive director of the ECenter when the Shaw program was founded.

Shaw Explorers pulling up fishing cage
Shaw Explorers get hands-on experience aboard The Lady Ella.
In that way, the program isn’t simply about rewarding students who get the best grades.

“The top academic students aren’t necessarily the best entrepreneurs,” Grant says. “This program requires these students to pair their technical skills and knowledge with their curiosity, creativity and desire to make things better.”

Quinn Williston, a 2022-23 scholar from Keene, fits the bill. Majoring in engineering physics with a minor in computer science, fabrication and design, he has always been curious about how things work — and trying his hand at building them. After high school, he built an electric motorcycle from scratch, teaching himself about rechargeable battery arrays and electric motors and systems. He even learned welding so that he could rebuild an old motorcycle frame to accommodate the large battery pack. And in summers, he has revisited his childhood home of Homer, Alaska, to work on a commercial halibut fishing boat.

Williston loves that he’s met so many kindred spirits across a range of disciplines through the Shaw Explorers Program, from fellow scholars to industry pioneers.

“The best part by far is being introduced to a bigger social circle outside my major,” Williston says. “What David and John Shaw did was set up this huge network of people who have created businesses and done so many creative things in all these different fields. So, to meet them and then to actually have the time to really talk with them is pretty incredible.”

Up close and hands-on

Later in the morning at the Yankee Fishermen’s Cooperative, the scholars will board lobster boat The Lady Ella and motor out into the Atlantic, where owner/captain Randy Campolini will show them what it takes to earn a paycheck from the sea. Taking a hand at hoisting and setting lobster traps, the students find that it’s heavy, demanding work, even on a nice day and in gentle seas.

“Lobster fishing is always a challenge. And there’s always something new to learn, too,” says Campolini, who has managed to succeed in an industry that has struggled with the impact of warming oceans on fish populations, increased competition and strict new regulations that are designed to protect endangered right whales.

The cooperative was one of five field trips the scholars are taking this academic year. To kick off the program, they visited Northern Outdoors, an adventure center in The Forks, Maine, which offers whitewater rafting, snowmobiling, fishing, hunting and other activities. There, they also learned about the challenges and rewards of starting, operating and sustaining a successful, year-round recreation business.

“It was a great way to start the program, because it showed you that it’s all about taking and managing risks,” says Sia Manna, a Shaw student from West Bengal, India, who found the ropes course intimidating. “So you’re learning about feeling uncomfortable and doing difficult things until you find a way to succeed. Just doing these exercises, learning from your mistakes and going through the process — it’s a really valuable experience.”

“Are you ready to roll your sleeves up and dive into a full world of creative and innovative events and activities?” If a student answers yes to that question, they’re encouraged to apply to the Shaw Explorers Program.
In addition to being a Shaw Explorer, Manna was awarded a paid summer internship at a start-up program, also offered through the ECenter. She landed at Wristruments, a Durham-based firm that developed a smart watch app designed to help users learn to play guitar and other instruments. Last April, Manna was part of a UNH student team who won the 24-hour hack-a-thon, a problem-solving competition offered by the UNH InterOperability Lab and Entrepreneurship Center.

In October, students met with VIP members of the UNH Alumni Entrepreneur Hall of Fame, including Jerome Dubois ’96 (vice president, Shopify Logistics), Fred Forsley ’83 (founder and owner, The Shipyard Brewing Company), Scott Knightly ’86 (founder and president, EnviroVantage, Inc.), Tonya Knightly ’91 (CFO, EnviroVantage, Inc.) and Tom Moulton ’77 (CEO and president, Sleepnet Corporation).

They then took on a three-day Start-Up Weekend, which immerses students in a 72-hour workshop that takes them through the process of creating, validating and presenting a start-up business proposal. The nationally recognized workshop has been used at schools that include MIT, Dartmouth and the University of Texas at Austin.

A broader view of entrepreneurship

In March, the Shaw Explorers will travel to the South by Southwest Innovation Conference in Austin, a conglomeration of music, film, interactive media, hands-on workshops and presentations with renowned creative artists, innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs from around the world.

Through such wide-ranging experiences, the Shaw Explorers discover that the entrepreneurship mindset extends far beyond its usual connection to starting a business.

“It’s an amazing program,” says Derek Bobbitt, a junior from Nashua and 2021 scholar who is mentoring this year’s cohort. “It takes us out of the tech start-up mindset that a lot of people associate with entrepreneurship. And it demonstrates the large array of areas where we can be entrepreneurs and innovators, through music, philanthropy, business and even the outdoors.”

They also participate in the Explorer Speaker Series and Explorer Roundtable, where the students meet with successful entrepreneurs and learn how they conceptualized, funded, launched and grew their businesses and organizations.

Finally, in May, the scholars will present their own innovative projects, which they brainstormed and built teams around in the fall.

“It’s an amazing group,” says Tiffany Marrotte from Jaffrey, who is majoring in marketing with a minor in design studies and also working as a UNH social media manager. “It’s great working with so many like-minded, highly motivated people. Even though we all have different majors, it makes me want to be more creative in my own work.”

A promotion that encourages first-year students to apply for the Shaw Innovation Explorers Program asks, “Are you ready to roll your sleeves up and dive into a full world of creative and innovative events and activities?”

If it sounds like a big undertaking for a college sophomore, that’s exactly the idea.

Says Grant, “We want to challenge them, to get them to step outside of their comfort zones and to experience how innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs create real opportunities. The hope is that the experiences they have and the friendships and networks they develop as Shaw Explorers will last them a lifetime.”

Curiosity, Action keys to success

DAVID SHAW ’73 admits that since he was young, he didn’t get feedback from his teachers that he was a great student. Not in high school and not at UNH as an English and political science dual major.

But rather than be discouraged, Shaw, from an early age, looked for other ways to be successful and other metrics to measure that success.

His younger brother, John Shaw, echoed his admission: as a student at Nashua High School and then at Phillips Exeter, academics weren’t John’s strong suit.

But the brothers agree: what they lacked in high GPAs and stellar report cards as youngsters, they made up for in natural curiosity, a willingness to try new things and always a sense of adventure.

As adults, both turned that curiosity and drive into successful enterprises as entrepreneurs and innovators. Both have founded their own global companies, served as advisors to prestigious organizations and institutions, and enjoyed great professional success while pursuing personal passions.

A few years ago, the two brothers realized they wanted to encourage the next generation of students to live lives of exploration and action.

“Ideas, and turning ideas into progress, is the fuel of life,” says John Shaw.

With a gift from the Shaw family, the UNH Shaw Innovation Explorers Program welcomed its first cohort of sophomores in the fall of 2021. The program provides scholarships to sophomores as well as hands-on, high-impact experiences that show how innovative ideas create opportunities in the real world — not only in business, but in the arts, nonprofits, government and other areas.

The brothers worked closely with the UNH ECenter to formalize the program, which, says John, was based on a question: “Where is the place you go if you want experiences in addition to classes as part of your college degree? Could we create an honor society for those students who might not be the top in their class, but who want to go out and change the world?”

Shaw Innovation Explorers founders taking a group photo outside
Shaw Innovation Explorers founders John Shaw (second from left in back) and David Shaw ’73 (back right) pose for a photo with ECenter’s former director Ian Grant and a group of Shaw Explorer students at David’s house in Scarborough, Maine.

Photo Courtesy of Shaw innovation Explorers Program
The timing, says David Shaw, was purposeful. “At your sophomore year, you’ve spent one year getting used to being away from home, and at that sophomore moment, you’re starting to think ahead, about how this college experience is going to launch the rest of your life and launch your career.”

The goal is to open students’ minds to possibilities, but in real and tangible ways, and in a way that adds to what they may be learning during their regular academic schedules.

“It’s about curiosity, discovery and failure, and understanding how the world works on those things,” says John Shaw.

His brother agrees. “It’s so important that you create opportunities and not just take opportunities that are presented to you … it’s part of learning how to take control of your own life.”

That’s something that both brothers know a bit about.

David is managing director of Black Point Group, a Portland, Maine-based private equity firm specializing in investments in life sciences and technology companies. He is the founder and retired CEO of IDEXX Laboratories, a leader in innovative technology-based products and services for veterinary, food and water applications. He was also a founder, former CEO and executive chairman of biopharmaceutical company Ikaria Holdings and has been a director and/or founding investor in numerous high-growth companies.

He’s served on the boards of a variety of organizations, including Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Maine Medical Center and Teach for America. These days, he’s pursuing his passion for environmental issues, history, public policy and social justice. He recently partnered with actress Goldie Hawn to launch her foundation’s program for mental wellness in several Maine schools.

In 2008, John Shaw and former UNH materials science professor Yvon Durant co-founded Itaconix based on technology developed in Durant’s research laboratory. Based in Stratham, Itaconix is a global company designing and manufacturing biobased polymers from itaconic acid with the main objectives of safety, performance and sustainability. Their product can be found in personal care items including deodorants and non-aerosol pump sprays, household products like dishwasher pods and surface cleaners, and industrial items including wastewater and sewage treatment and animal and agricultural waste containment sites. After starting his career doing turnaround work with McKinsey & Co., John founded Kensington Research in 1986 to work with companies and inventors on turning new medical and industrial technologies into successful products.

He’s also been an active volunteer and board member with organizations including the First Congregational Society of Hampton Falls and Portsmouth Athenaeum.

For David the idea of making your own future came into even greater focus in July 2011, when he developed a nearly fatal viral infection in his brain, creating a medical condition known as viral encephalitis.

“My encephalopathy was an epic struggle,” David recalls. And while he credits excellent medical care and the support of his family and friends with his eventual recovery, he also believes the ownership he took in his therapy was key to his recovery.

“Most of my life I’ve found that exceptional value can be created by defying and challenging conventional wisdom. Part of my survival of that illness was thanks to doubting that it was true that I couldn’t survive,” he says. He created his own cognitive therapy plan, making films and music.

He connects that struggle in some ways to entrepreneurship. “Taking responsibility for your life, looking at solutions that are different, not always buying conventional wisdom about something, that’s part of being an entrepreneur.”

He hopes the Shaw Explorers will leave the program with a similar sense of holistic thinking. “I’ve liked to live kind of a big life and to look at big-picture issues. Knowing that life is short, I really admire people who get up every day to make a difference in the world,” he says.

John believes that for some, the term ‘entrepreneur’ can imply a pressure to start something like a new business. But the biggest takeaway for any Shaw student should be the idea of creating their own possibilities.

“It’s really about learning new ways of thinking. I hope through the people they meet in this program, students will gather knowledge and understand what mindset those people had, how insecure and uncertain they felt, and that everything wasn’t perfect,” John says. “I hope they have the confidence to say, ‘It’s always muddy, I can’t wait for it to not be muddy to do something, that’s just the nature of the journey.’

“If students come away with that understanding, then that’s a wild success.”

— Michelle Morrissey ’97