How a 15 Year Old Boy and Pond Scum Can Power the World

Posted by on June 5, 2009 in Entrepreneurship, Featured


“What can you invent to make life easier, the planet greener, and the world better?”

Fifteen year old, Javier Fernandez-Han of Houston, Texas took the above question for the 2009 Invent Your World Challenge and swam with it. Instead of creating one invention to address a certain aspect of sustainability, he designed an entire system. The VERSATILE system is a mix of new and existing technology that treats waste, produces methane and bio-oil as fuel, produces food for humans and livestock, sequesters greenhouses gases, and creates oxygen. It sounds complicated, but Javier insists there is just one key ingredient: algae.

The VERSATILE system includes an anaerobic digester that converts food scraps and sewage into clean products, a bio-gas upgrader that provides fuel and nourishment for algae, vented methane burning stoves, algae bioreactors, flush latrines, and a “PlayPump” where energy from child play can be stored to power electrical appliances. The VERSATILE system can operate on a city or family-size scale and generate a substantial amount of income. The income is created through the sale of algae biomass. Algae is used to create livestock and aquaculture feed and is a crucial component in many pharmeceuticals, making it a profitable business venture.

Javier’s VERSATILE system beat out over 300 other applicants (including those well into their twenties in age), from 30 different countries. The Invent Your World Challenge is an annual competition put on by the Ashoka GenV and the Lemelson Foundation aimed at supporting 50 young inventors who use inventions to create positive change. By providing mentorship, seed funding, networking opportunities, and one $20,000 scholarship (which Javier received), the Invent Your World Challenge fosters tomorrow’s leaders today. With the VERSATILE system now on its way to fruition – the next time you call someone pond scum, you may actually be giving them a compliment. :) Congratulations, Javier!

Youth Venture


  • Youth Venture inspires and invests teams of young people to design and launch their own lasting social ventures.
  • Organization Type: Non-Profit
  • Website:
  • Founded: 1996
  • Location: United States and Internationally
  • See complete company list here

Lemelson Foundation


  • Lemelson Foundation is dedicated to improving lives through inventions by supporting inventors and entrepreneurs that strengthen social and economic life.
  • Organization Type: Non-Profit
  • Website:
  • Founder(s): Jerry and Dorothy Lemelson
  • Founded: early 1990’s
  • Location: Portland, OR
  • See complete company list here


Ashley is a friend of anyone who is fighting the good fight for social change. She has worked for environmental advocacy in Montana, poverty eradication in Guatemala, and peace and conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. She now lives in Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain where she teaches International Relations English and is pursuing her Masters in Language Acquisition in Multicultural Settings.

More Posts - Website

Leave a Comment