Wageningen students organise first Biobased Economy ‘SymbioSUM’

Published on
June 21, 2016

A group of 18 master students from Wageningen University has been working on organising the three-day ‘SymbioSUM’ event for over a year. The title stands for symbiosis and the sum of a conference and think tank. SymbioSUM, which takes place from 28 to 31 August, will be the first international Biobased Economy student ‘symbiosum’ and, according to organiser Mario Beck, very different from a normal conference.

The conference will have a ‘traditional’ start with keynote speakers such as Arthur Mol, (rector magnificus of Wageningen University), Roel Bol (Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs), Michael Carhus (Nova Institute, Hurth, near Cologne) and Johan Sanders (Food & Biobased Research). The remainder of the programme will then be more innovative, including an SmS (students meet students) dinner.

For companies too

The event is expecting to attract end-of-bachelor, master and starting PhD students from various disciplines in the Netherlands and abroad. In addition to students, SymbioSUM also welcomes companies and institutes. “By means of brief, pitch-like TEDx lectures, companies – including two multinationals – and professionals will debate challenges and solutions in the Biobased Economy,” says Mario Beck, who organised the conference in his spare time together with his co-students. This programme element is called Biobased Inspirational Stands (BioBIS).

Students of today, experts of tomorrow

The event is not entirely free of obligation. As of mid-June, the students will be studying cases, tools and interview techniques to ensure they present themselves as well as possible. BioBIS still has a few spots for students and businesses alike.

Master student in biotechnology Beck became fascinated with the circular Biobased Economy during his pre-university training in Germany. His choice for Wageningen University was a logical one: “The Netherlands in general and Wageningen in particular are doing great work in stimulating biobased initiatives.”

Talking to fellow students, Beck discovered a lack of awareness among them regarding the possibilities of biobased solutions. “This applied not only to socially useful applications such as bioplastics, but also their own career opportunities. Our goal is to bring ambitious students into contact with companies and accelerate the growth towards a Biobased Economy. This initiative aims to turn the students of today into the experts of tomorrow.”

Upscaling and societal awareness

Plastic packaging, paint and lubricants are familiar products which are currently still being produced based on fossil oil. While alternatives based on biomass are possible in many cases, a great deal more research is required says Beck. “We shouldn’t make ourselves too vulnerable by using food crops as a basis. Instead we should only use organic waste as a starting material for the new products. Moreover, while it is important that the packaging of potatoes or the plastic wrapping for magazines composts quickly, we don’t want the same for mobile phones or cars.”

Beck and co-initiator Bart Emons started the concept of SymbioSUM after consulting a number of experts about the biggest challenges facing the Biobased Economy. The general opinion is that upscaling and the competition with conventional oil-based products are the major issues. “The lack of awareness in society is also in the top three,” says Beck. “And that is the raison d'être behind SymbioSUM.”

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