“If you truly want to make an impact in the world, try to find a solution to climate change,” Calvin Atieku ’23

Student in a LaunchPad shirt

According to theguardian.com, citing a recent NOAA study about water levels and climate change, Florida is set to be completely underwater by the year 2070. This is apparently due to rising water levels as well as the overarching impact of climate change. This means that in 50 short years, the beloved Florida Walt Disney World Resort could be submerged under water. This also means that the approximately 21 million inhabitants of the state could be left homeless if their homes could be submerged under water. It is likely many people paid no heed to this report.  However, Calvin Atieku ’23 is concerned about the gravity of rising water levels, climate change, and the destruction this has already created in communities impacted by flooding. And he has set out to do something ambitious and visionary about it.

A freshman studying mechanical engineering at the Syracuse University College of Engineering & Computer Sciences, Calvin is the founder of DNA Development. His vision is to expand the livability of coastal cities of the world via floating homes.  “The idea is that, as flooding impacts entire cities, these coastal houses could rise, not be impacted by flooding,” he notes. Atieku explains that the solution has been explored and by other countries, pointing to the Ijburg Neighborhood in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where an entire neighborhood has been established on the water. Atieku’s DNA aims to replicate this model, but on American waterways, coastal regions, and other areas prone to flooding.

“It is predicted that the world’s population will increase from 7.5 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050 and space is going to be a problem.  Why don’t we think about expanding space over water, since the oceans make up 70% of the planet?”

He presents this as an alternative to other issues, such as building in areas prone to forest fires, which are also becoming a big issue.  Atieku’s vision is to expand coastal cities and equip them with solar energy solutions, decreasing reliance on the grid, and having a hugely positive impact on climate change.

Although Atieku is in the conceptual phase of the idea, he is making strong headway. “In order to be successful, it is important to first get the idea out there.” As he pursues his engineering degree, he is exploring the idea with guidance of professors across various disciplines.

Atieku is actively engaged in the pursuit of innovation.  He is also the current Freshman Representative for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and Vice President of Professional Events in the Marketing Club. “To be honest, there are not a lot of Black Engineers, and NSBE is trying to support our engineers through graduation.” As a freshman representative, Atieku is integral to planning events that expose the minority groups within the engineering community to other like-minded professionals in the Industry. The organization aims to facilitate relationships between minority students and connections which can eventually lead to opportunities and guidance for the students later on. “We reach out to every freshman and sophomore or student of color, and we bring professors across the school of engineering to one big meeting for lunch so that they can get to know each other and build connections.”

When speaking about NSBE, Atieku mentions how the organization and his role has forced him to get out into the open and meet different people. He talks about how despite being “just a freshman” he has the opportunity to build connections and meet new people.

Atieku spent a part of his childhood in the Capital City of Accra in Ghana, where he was born. Having grown up in a suburban community, he discovered he did not like an isolated quiet lifestyle of suburban or rural environments.  “Even though I lived comfortably, I craved being around people and making new friends.” Atieku describes how it can be difficult to meet new people in suburban settings where people don’t often come out of their houses. 

This changed when he moved to America in 2010. He moved to Brooklyn, NY which was far more urban than Ghana. “I was happy because my friends weren’t that far away, and everybody was connected.” He recollects how, during one instance, the community of his neighborhood actually came together and helped his mother fend off a man who had been harassing her on her way home from work. Atieku describes how this sentiment of community empowered him to run track in high school and how it allows him today to pursue his vision, despite challenges.

As a recent 2020 TEDx Syracuse University speaker, he talked about how he dealt with challenges pertaining to self-confidence. “Sometimes I say, ‘Am I really good enough to start a company?’” However, his secret to powering through self-doubts lies in hard work and passion. He shares how plugging away at a problem that you are passionate about eliminates those doubts and gives you confidence.

Atieku hopes to one day walk out of Syracuse University by creating a legacy of his own in the College of Engineering. He feels fortunate to attend Syracuse University and hopes to pave the way for future Calvin Atieku’s who wish to attend SU and change the world.

Atieku hopes to replicate the successes of the projects that were spearheaded by entrepreneurs in the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by TechStars at Syracuse University. “I look up to people like Kelsey Davis and Russell Fearon.”  Davis is founder of CLLCTVE and Fearon is founder of SugEx.

He also credits the LaunchPad with helping him stay the course with DNA. “To be honest, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the LaunchPad. When I first came up with the idea, I was going to drop it, but the LaunchPad team told me that a true entrepreneur takes a long journey, and often fails over and starts over, to get the one big idea out there.”

Enabled by the LaunchPad’s support, he applied to be a speaker at TEDx and continued to pursue his big idea.  With coaching by the LaunchPad, he also applied to the Hult Prize, the student “Nobel Prize for social entrepreneurship,” and will be representing Syracuse University at the upcoming global regionals in Washington DC, with the support of the LaunchPad.  That is a significant accomplish for a freshman, who is thinking big about some very wicked problems in the world.

Story by Blackstone Global Fellow Krishna Pamidi ‘21