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NCSA Awards 2022 Fiddler Innovation Fellowship

Gabe Tavas standing in a forest preserve surrounded by trees holding a rounded piece of Pyrus, the wood alternative.

Gabe Tavas holding a piece of Pyrus, the sustainable wood alternative.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications is proud to announce Gabe Tavas as the latest recipient of the $10,000 Fiddler Innovation Fellowship for developing a sustainable wood alternative to combat deforestation. Tavas recently graduated this spring from the College of Fine & Applied Arts at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a degree in Sustainable Design.

The Fiddler Innovation Fellowship is part of a $2 million endowment from Jerry Fiddler and Melissa Alden to the University of Illinois to support the Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media (eDream) Institute. Based at NCSA, the eDream Institute awards exceptional, creative, and interdisciplinary students and faculty who propose significant projects that address cultural and global challenges using art, science and technology.

A photo of NCSA and eDream Director Bill Gropp and 2022 Fiddler Innovation Fellow Gabe Tavas
NCSA and eDream Director Bill Gropp and 2022 Fiddler Innovation Fellow Gabe Tavas.

Gabe’s innovative process for a wood alternative and his clever initial product choices are great examples of the innovative and interdisciplinary thinking that the Fiddler Innovation Endowment supports. We are grateful to Jerry Fiddler and Melissa Alden for their generous support.

William “Bill” Gropp, NCSA and eDream Institute Director

The Grainger College of Engineering’s Technology Entrepreneur Center, Gropp and NCSA Senior Research Coordinator Olena Kindratenko conducted a rigorous review to determine this year’s winners – carefully selecting those who “show promise of significant, innovative achievements.” TEC presented the Illinois Innovation Award to Bioengineering graduate student Guanhua (Daniel) Xu for his contributions to developing SPOT – a rapid, scalable and portable testing system for COVID-19 diagnosis.

NCSA presented Tavas the Fiddler Innovation Fellowship for the development of Pyrus™, an alternative for tree-based wood that aims to conserve and protect our environment. His passion for sustainable design stems from his love of forest preserves, inspiring him to invent Pyrus and start Symmetry Wood – a biotech company dedicated to creating materials that promote harmony between humanity and nature.

The Symmetry Wood team posing for a group photo seated on a staircase.
Symmetry Wood Team: Liv Oaxaca, Gabe Tavas, Vihaan Kalaria, Nathan Levandovsky, Jared Fligelman, Brian Cheng and Lucy Quinn.

When I started my work with Pyrus four years ago, it was a side project in my dorm room and the university’s Fab Lab. Now that it is part of a formal company, receiving the support of NCSA will greatly help the Symmetry Wood team accelerate its efforts in combating deforestation. It is also an enormous validation of all the work my teammates and I have put into the venture. Thank you to everyone who organized and judged for the Fiddler Innovation Fellowship! We will remember you as we continue to fight for a more sustainable and regenerative world.

Gabe Tavas, 2022 Fiddler Innovation Fellow

Tavas, also a winner of the 2021 U.S. James Dyson Award, is actively exploring using bacteria to produce cellulose – the most abundant organic substance on Earth commonly found in wood. Millions of trees are cut down each year and turned into cellulose pulp to make thousands and thousands of commercial products and foods. Determined to save trees and the planet, Tavas turned to Kombucha for a creative solution.

Turning Waste Into Wood-Like Materials

amples of Pyrus material created by Gabe Tavas and Symmetry Wood on a table focused in on a rounded dark sample with the Symmetry Wood logo etched on it.
Samples of Pyrus material created by Gabe Tavas and Symmetry Wood.

A popular fermented tea beverage known for its health benefits, Kombucha produces a floating film of bacterial cellulose during the brewing process that’s removed and discarded before consumption. This Kombucha waste product serves as the main component of Pyrus. It mimics cellulose found in trees but takes the pressure off harvesting them because it’s grown by bacteria.

Symmetry Wood partners with production facilities, retail shops and producers – Kombuchade, The Plant, the Turtle Stop and Cloud Mountain Kombucha – to support their mission. The SW team gathers food waste from their partners, repurposes it to grow bacterial cellulose in tanks, then makes a petroleum-free mixture that transforms into Pyrus.

A YouTube video showing why and how Symmetry Wood makes Pyrus material. Credit: Gabe Tavas

The team prides itself on its commitment to producing the sustainable wood alternative without toxins or non-biodegradable additives. So far, they’ve successfully used Pyrus sheets to create handmade items such as guitar picks, unique jewelry and coasters. Tavas hopes to one-day 3D print the bacterial cellulose into bigger objects that are currently difficult to make out of Pyrus sheets.

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