Zeba Parkar (right)
Ph.D. candidate, Materials Science and Engineering
Co-Founder of MilkShield
Nihal Parkar (left)
Masters, Chemical Engineering (UIC)
Co-Founder of MilkShield
Visit MilkShield's website
By Melissa Chua
For small farmers in India, every drop of cow’s milk is precious. Zeba Parkar, a Ph.D. candidate in Materials Science and Engineering, traveled halfway across the world and founded a company called MilkShield to help save every drop.
“These small subsistence farmers only have a couple of cows,” Parkar said. “They somehow have to get milk from the cows and sell them to cooperative societies. Their livelihood is the milk they sell.”
Parkar is from Mumbai, India, where she witnessed a huge problem affecting poverty in rural areas: much of the milk small farmers wanted to sell from their cows would spoil well before reaching buyers. Parkar’s father encouraged her to think entrepreneurially about it – that is, to contemplate the problem, find some way to fill the gap, and make a profit while doing it.
“My father taught me how to translate ideas from the lab to a real-life benefit,” Parkar said.
But it wasn’t until Parkar came to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that she found a way to merge her research with entrepreneurship. During her graduate coursework, Parkar met Dr. James Economy, a University of Illinois professor who has done a wealth of research in water purification.
That’s when Parkar realized she could no longer ignore the problem of rapid milk decay she had witnessed. Unlike many industrialized nations, India does not have an effective refrigeration chain for transporting milk. Keeping this in mind, Parkar began conducting preliminary experiments with Dr. Economy in the laboratory to find an easy way to keep milk fresh, especially for subsistence farmers. She enlisted the help of Nihal Parkar, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago with a Master’s in Chemical Engineering, to analyze her resulting product for taste and safety. This led Parkar to start thinking about her preservation product entrepreneurially and build a company around her discoveries.
SilverScreen was born out of long hours of trial and error in the lab. The product is literally a screen injected with silver nanoparticles designed to keep milk fresh. The small capsule or insert prevents milk from spoiling for more than 72 hours without refrigeration. The milk can be kept fresh even in temperatures up to 100°F, making it ideal for use in tropical climates.
“MilkShield depends only on contact between the insert and the beverage,” Parkar said, “so it can be used with any kind of milk bottle or storage container.”
Parkar realized that though the social motivations of her product were respectable, she needed to consider the economic sustainability of her product. Her company had to be able to sustain itself before she could help others. Parkar turned to Illinois Launch to make MilkShield function as a strong business. Launch provided her team with the laboratory space, funding, and networking to enable Parkar’s dream of helping small farmers in developing to countries come true.
“Illinois Launch has been great because now that we’re out of the university, we needed lab space to conduct our experiments and do more product development,” Parkar said. “They’re giving us seed funding to buy chemicals, recruit interns to do some work for us, and even get testing done from outside.”
Parkar continues to seek ways to become a stronger entrepreneur and make her product marketable for use on small farms around the world. When asked about giving advice to up-and-coming entrepreneurs, Parkar said, “Everything is right in front of you. You just need to find the right resources, and you’ll be able to move forward.”
As to MilkShield’s future, Parkar hopes to develop new applications, including a versatile capsule for use in infant and breast milk.
Want to learn more? Visit MilkShield's website