Mo. Na. Gems co-founders Mecca McDonald, left, and Mia Dunn.

The following was written by Erica Avery, FastForward U’s communications intern.

Mo.Na. Gems, a startup that makes bioplastic and biodegradable accessories and lifestyle goods, such as earrings, won the $20,000 top prize during FastForward U’s 2021 Demo Day, a virtual showcase of student entrepreneurship.

“The difference that distinguishes our products from other sustainable products is that other products look sustainable but don’t necessarily follow trends fashion may keep up with,” said co-founder Mia Dunn. “We’re trying to offer an alternative that symbolizes how sustainability can be aesthetically pleasing and fashionable.”

“I was really happy because I feel like all of us worked really hard, especially while being in school trying to finish our senior years and managing a startup simultaneously,” added Mecca McDonald, another co-founder. “It was extremely validating because I’m doing something right and other people see it. I already believe in myself and what we’re doing and what we’re capable of accomplishing, but it’s nice when other people can say, ‘You’re doing something great, here’s $20,000.’”

McDonald started Mo.Na. during the pandemic as a home project with bioplastics, trying to create a fashionable yet sustainable product.

“I got to researching formulas on the internet and I reached out to [Dunn] who’s a chemical biomolecular engineering major— but she’s also an artist—and because of those two traits she would understand what I was trying to accomplish,” McDonald said. “We worked on it every day in the summer, trying and failing, and we finally got a formula that gave us the desired properties we were looking for.”

It took the team seven months to get their preliminary formula while trying to avoid, as McDonald put it, looking “DIY or handmade” like other sustainable products.

“We failed so many times and we have hundreds of ugly products— you don’t realize how failure is actually bringing you closer to where you want to be,” she said. “And we’re happy we didn’t take it personal or get discouraged. We saw it as motivation— like we just have to change this one thing and every time we failed we got more creative and it inspired us to try something new.”

McDonald is grateful for FastForward U’s support and giving her a crash course in running a business.

“I think now I see the potential where Mo.Na. could become a company and not just a side hustle,” McDonald said.

The team plans to use the Demo Day award to expand its product line and to allow the co-founders to work fulltime on the business post-graduation.

Mo.Na. Gems was one of eight teams to pitch their business during Demo Day. Hypermelt, a DNA analytics platform for early ovarian cancer screening, and Pnuetech, a device that enhances lung biopsy range and safety, placed second and third, respectively.

Josh Ambrose, FastForward U’s director of student ventures, said he was proud of the variety of student startups that took part in the accelerator despite the challenges of starting a business during a pandemic.

“Partnering with their pathway to success is possible thanks to the generous support from our accomplished donors, who fuel our ever-increasing programmatic offerings from FastForward U,” he said.

Click here to watch all of the teams’ pitches, as well as the entire Demo Day event.