An entrepreneurial hit
Why this GTCC alum owes his success to pigs
Story and photos by Carla Kucinski
Life has been surreal for Daniel Oldham lately.
He just got back from France – he’d never been – and before that he flew to England, Holland and Belgium, just to name a few. It’s a story no one could have predicted, especially not Oldham.
“I mean me? I’m just this guy from rural-two-cow-pasture-high-school,” he said. “It’s just mind-blowing. Growing up in a rural town, I wanted to travel and see things. I never thought I’d be able to have the chance.”
To do what Oldham does, one must have a sense of humor and a love for your work.
Luckily, Oldham has both. He travels the country and the globe giving talks about pig poop. That’s right, pig poop.
“I feel very fortunate because people have spent their lives working on their ideas and projects. And me, I’m just out of college.”
A year ago, Oldham didn’t know what an entrepreneur was; now at age 24, he is one. The GTCC alumnus and civil engineering graduate student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University helped create Bio-Adhesive Alliance, Inc. with North Carolina A&T University professors Ellie Fini and Mahour Mellat-Parast. The start-up company produces a bio-adhesive from swine manure and can be used in asphalt pavement. They saw a need and developed an idea to solve that need.
“We’re making something that’s equivalent in value to fossil fuels, something that everybody wants and everybody can’t get enough of,” Oldham said. “We’re saving money; we’re helping the environment; and we’re turning swine manure – which nobody wants – into an adhesive. So it’s a win-win for everybody. People started seeing that and seeing the benefits. Then we started to get a lot of interest.”
A budding engineer
Oldham, who is part Filipino, grew up in the small, rural town of Erect, N.C. near Seagrove in Randolph County. A quiet and reserved child, he passed time riding four-wheelers and carving paths in the woods behind his house. Even early on he showed signs of a budding engineer.
“I was always taking things apart and trying to put them back together,” he recalls. “That mindset of how things work and how we can improve them and put them back together was really fascinating for me.”
He learned to value hands-on labor, working alongside his father, William, who moves houses for a living through a family business. While his father instilled in him the importance of hard work, his mother, Dahlia, stressed the value of education.
Oldham attended Faith Christian School in Ramseur, N.C., where he graduated as salutatorian of an intimate class of 15 students. When it came time to apply to colleges, the idea of transitioning from a tiny high school to a four-year institution of thousands intimidated him. So he looked to GTCC as his stepping stone.
“GTCC was a really good in-between for me transitioning to a four-year,” said Oldham, who majored in pre-engineering. “It seemed like a natural step.”
For Oldham, affordability and location also were factors. He could complete his general education requirements at a lower-cost compared to most four-year institutions and save additional money by living at home.
“It was a very good investment,” he said. “I felt like it made me more well-rounded, too. It was a good maturing process for me.”
It also opened other doors to his future. GTCC carved a seamless path for Oldham as he transitioned to N.C. A&T. Terence Garraway, department chair of civil and mechanical engineering at GTCC, was instrumental in the process. As Oldham’s advisor and an A&T alumnus, he encouraged him to transfer to A&T and arranged a meeting for him with the chair of the university’s civil engineering department. Garraway saw great promise in Oldham.
“His potential was unlimited in terms of his academic strengths and goals,” Garraway said. “Daniel was an extremely dedicated and hardworking student, well-organized and a leader.”
With a scholarship offer from A&T, Oldham took classes at GTCC and A&T simultaneously. By May 2013, he graduated with an associate degree in pre-engineering from GTCC and a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from A&T. Getting a degree from GTCC, he says, was important to him.
“I wanted to walk across the stage and make it complete,” he said. “Some people do the transfer program and get their four-year and forget about their community college experience. But I wanted to make it a staple and have the diploma.”
“GTCC was a really good in-between for me transitioning to a four-year. It seemed like a natural step.”
A revolutionary product
The first time Oldham was asked to conduct research at A&T, he turned down the offer. The idea sort of freaked him out and conjured up images of comic book character Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider and turning into Spider-Man.
“I was so green back then,” says Oldham, laughing. “I was thinking of crazy stuff that’s dangerous and might hurt me.”
Instead, his first research project involved something a little less intimidating: asphalt. Under the direction of his advisor, Fini, they developed the process to convert swine manure to a bio-adhesive used in asphalt. The low-cost, sustainable and eco-friendly product gained national and international attention in engineering, agricultural and construction industries.
Knowing they had a valuable product to market, they formed Bio-Adhesive Alliance, Inc. and funded their research through grants and competitions where they presented their entrepreneurial concept. So far they’ve raised more than $250,000 from competitions alone and they continue to participate in other contests this year to raise funds for a larger bio-reactor that can produce more product.
As Oldham’s advisor and business partner, Fini says she sees a thirst for learning in him.
“His progress and performance has been impressive,” says Fini of Oldham. “I observed him progressing in research, building his confidence and getting matured as a young researcher and scholar since joining our research team. He maintains a high standard of ethics while ensuring delivery of high quality work.”
As the company’s technical manager, Oldham is responsible for the actual production and application of the product. In other words, he does the dirty work.
“I’m the one at the farm, scooping the manure, putting it in the reactor,” he says.
The entire process takes six hours, which doesn’t always coincide with Oldham’s class schedule. It sometimes requires running out to A&T’s swine farm between classes and donning a military chemical suit to keep the scent of manure from seeping into his clothing.
“Hog manure just has an incredible bad smell, and when you heat it up to 300 degrees Celcius, it kind of magnifies. You won’t forget the smell, that’s for sure.”
Still, it’s a small price to pay for creating a revolutionary product.
Oldham does not take anything for granted. A strong believer in his faith, he will tell you that God is responsible for all of these events that have occurred recently in his life.
“I was comfortable where I was,” said Oldham, who attends Beulah Baptist Church in Bennett, N.C. “I surrendered to God and whatever he wants me to do in my life, and the moment I did that, that’s when all of these things really opened up.”
Oldham became more involved in his church, and by his early 20s, he embarked on mission trips to Spain, the Dominican Republic and South Africa, where he carried out humanitarian work, including visiting orphanages. It was an eye-opening and life-changing experience.
“It gives you a good perspective,” he says. “We have so much we can share with others who have a lot less. It was a way I could give back to some people who don’t even have hope in their lives.”
He’s also discovered that engineering can be another extension of his mission to give back. There’s so much more to engineering than mathematics and science. It changes peoples’ lives – even if it’s something as simple as asphalt.
“With pavement specifically, it interacts with everybody. Everyone has to rely on transportation on pavement. We use it for emergencies, going to hospitals, families going on vacations, food being transported,” Oldham says. “Being able to work on something that important to society is really awesome. The impact of doing research has a lot of positives and can help a lot of people.”
Being an entrepreneur has taught him perseverance and patience. Sometimes things take a while to come to fruition, but when they do, the outcome is rewarding. And despite all that he’s accomplished at such a young age, Oldham remains humble and never loses sight of his gratitude or his purpose.
“For me, I still can’t imagine I’m in this thing,” he says. “The opportunities I’ve been presented, it’s so rare. I’m just so grateful. It makes me want to excel and try to make an impact and help as many people as I can.”
– Published spring 2015