Close calls and online celebrations at grand finale of the ReThink Protein Challenge

June 30, 2021

The wait is finally over for teams participating in the ReThink Protein Challenge ’2. On Friday 25 June, the jury announced the winners of this thrilling edition of the Student Challenges. A tense build-up, including video pitches by the twelve remaining teams, finished with a first place for team Algo in the Ideation category and team Cultivated in the Prototyping category.

The Grand Finale marked the end of a Student Challenge that started in December 2020 and involved 49 teams from over 40 countries. More than 30 companies and 60 coaches helped the students on their way to the final. All these teams formulated their own answers to the subject at the heart of the Challenge: the protein transition. How can we feed billions of people in a healthy, sustainable way? To give students a chance to contribute to a solution, WUR organised the ReThink Protein Student Challenge for the second time.

Only six teams were left to compete for the highly coveted first place in the Ideation category and the same number of teams remained in the Prototyping category, where concepts have to be a few steps further developed. The following teams were still in competition: ProProtein, AlgO, Flypro, mINc, Propers and S.E.E.D. (Ideation) and Mushgroom, MLB, Pemla Forest Foods, SAHARA, Blue Chitin and Cultivated (Prototyping).

 Julia and Thomas of team Cultivated were thrilled, and already looked forward to continuing their work after finishing their thesis.
Julia and Thomas of team Cultivated were thrilled, and already looked forward to continuing their work after finishing their thesis.

Difficult decisions for the jury

Before the finale, these teams had spent the morning presenting their case to the jury, which asked them critical questions about their concepts. The jury then had the difficult job of selecting the best teams from this strong field. This was a challenging task, according to Wim Hilbrands, project director at DSM and chair of the selection committee. Teams had delivered a very high quality, and it was difficult to compare projects as far apart as tomato seeds, plant-based dairy to fish feed based on shrimp shells. Hilbrands praised the teams: ‘Students have a fresh perspective. Their ideas always lead to new avenues that we haven’t thought about.’  

His jury colleagues, from Student Challenges’ partners Lely, IFF, Avebe, Bayer and GEA, were equally impressed. Many complimented the students for their hard work, excellent performance and enthusiasm and would even be glad to have them on board at their own company. ‘Give me a call and I’ll give you a job’ said one of the jury members.

The time had come for Hilbrands to announce that the following teams had finished in the top three in their categories. First the Ideation competitors.

AlgO: New technology that overcomes the obstacles of producing and transforming micro-algae into a sustainable and palatable ingredient for alternative protein-rich foods.

Propers: Developing sustainable tempeh products on the basis of rubber seeds, an under-utilized protein source in Indonesia.

S.E.E.D: Recovering the value-added protein source from tomato seeds considered waste by the food processing industry.

Then the teams competing in the Prototyping category.

SAHARA: Providing sustainable protein solutions to underserved communities and the communities of affluence, to create an effective revenue model and economic recycling between the two.

Blue Chitin: Feed additive that consists of waste material from the shrimp industry to improve the nutrient uptake efficiency in Nile tilapia.

Cultivated: Developing raw materials identical to those sourced from animal farming to satisfy the demand for traditional dairy products in a sustainable way.

Dan and Daniel of team AlgO felt ‘pure happiness!’
Dan and Daniel of team AlgO felt ‘pure happiness!’

And the winners are...

Before announcing the winners in each category, host Rudy van Beurden invited viewers at home to vote for their favourite team. More than 270 people were watching from home, and the majority of their votes (53%) went to Blue Chitin. They were the first of the day’s winners, and two more soon followed.

With tension rising, Wim Hilbrands repeated that teams had been neck-and-neck and that all of them had delivered concepts of a very high quality. But decisions had to be made, and Hilbrands finally brought the good news to teams AlgO and Cultivated. For their first place, the teams had earned 3.000 and 6.000 euros respectively.

Dan and Daniel of team AlgO, the first to be called out, felt ‘pure happiness!’ The ReThink Protein Challenge had already been an incredible journey for them, and they had not expected to win it. Julia and Thomas of team Cultivated were also thrilled, and already looked forward to continuing their work after finishing their thesis. The first order of business is to find a lab to execute their R&D plans.

A bright future

For the winners, a whole new adventure awaits. Besides the prize money, AlgO and Cultivated will receive support from StartHub in the form of matchmaking, free participation in the StartHub Realisation Programme and two additional coaching sessions on entrepreneurial competence development and building a (semi)professional team. The teams will also be put in touch with investors Siemon van den Berg and Randolf Nijsse of the Impact Equity Fund.

Needless to say, all the participating students in the ReThink Protein Challenge have a role to play in the protein transition. The teams have only just started their journey. Hopefully we will hear a lot from them in the coming years.