Wageningen World

Students turn waste into protein

A group of Wageningen students won the Rethink Waste international student challenge with their idea for making high-quality protein powder out of waste streams. Four of them are now starting a company in order to put their concept into practice. ‘Fermentation is an excellent way of turning waste into human food.’

‘It smelled like a fart,’ says Master’s student of Sustainable Business & Innovation Tim Bongers. He’s referring to the fermented cabbage that Marisol Calderon shoved under his nose when they had just started collaborating on a student challenge. Her room was full of jars full of fermenting foodstuffs. ‘The challenge team looked a bit worried when they saw that,’ laughs Calderon, a Master’s student of Food Technology. ‘But it’s delicious. Fermentation is magic, and micro-organisms are magicians.’

At the end of 2022, Bongers and Cameron formed a team with four other students to enter the Rethink Waste Challenge. The aim of this international student challenge is to find the best business plan or prototype for converting a waste stream into a useful product.  

More than 190 students from 72 universities in 33 countries took on the challenge. What started for team Afterlife with a whiff of fermented cabbage and a pile of post-its with vague ideas ended in June with the prize for the best business plan for a financially viable product made from waste.

The production process uses less land and water than growing soya

As they worked on the challenge, the students got help from various quarters. Team member Tijmen Visser: ‘There were meetings aimed at learning how to brainstorm effectively, for example. And you could approach companies with any questions you had. So for instance, we held useful discussions with the waste and recycling company Renewi, and we learned about intellectual property from the marketing company CJ.’

Bongers: ‘At this point, our idea only exists on paper, but all the principles we use are already applied in practice.’ The idea the students worked out is based on fermentation: a fungus converts agricultural and food industry waste into a protein-rich raw material for food products. ‘Potato peel and beet pulp, for instance, are full of cellulose, starch and other sugars. Fungi can easily grow on those fibrous waste products. It really is a great way of transforming waste from a social problem to a source of human food.’ In the Netherlands alone, the sugar industry is left with a million tons of sugar beet pulp every year. A small proportion of this becomes livestock feed, but most of it is processed into biogas. Bongers: ‘Those are both low-end products compared to what we want to make.’

Visser: ‘The fungi can use the waste streams to make proteins with the same nutritional value as proteins from meat and dairy produce. Plant proteins from soya, for example, are of slightly lower quality. So this could be really good news for vegans. You can add a spoonful of the protein powder to a protein shake at home, and the food industry can mix it into meat substitutes.’

Bongers: ‘There’s no funny taste to it and producing it uses less land and water than growing a crop like soya.’

Scaling up

Team member Peter van Nes, a Master’s student of Biotechnology, will be joining Calderon, Bongers and Visser when he gets back from his internship in Australia. Visser is the only graduate in the group, having studied Agrotechnology and Biosystems Engineering; he now has an IT job as an application engineer for livestock feed company Royal De Heus. ‘I operate in two different worlds: I’m getting to know the world of a big company, and I’m trying to do research and launch a business together with our team. We are designing experiments we want to conduct, and we’re thinking about how we can best upscale for maximum impact. So do we focus first on the market for protein shakes, or on meat substitutes?’

Besides the prize money of 6000 euros for further development of the idea, the team was also the general public’s favourite and won a money prize from challenge partner Fuji Oil, which develops plant-based ingredients for the food industry. In October, Afterlife also won the 4 TU Impact Challenge run by the four big Dutch technological universities. With their prize money, the team will soon be off to the lab for their first experiments. Bongers: ‘We are still looking for funding to take it further after that, and we are keen to set up an expert panel.’