One year ago, 150 students - divided over 58 teams - accepted the challenge to find a new way to feed the world with sufficient protein in a sustainable, healthy and affordable way. Students presented ideas from silkworms as pet food to energy bars made from brewing residue. The winning teams received a cheque and support to further develop their ideas. One year after the challenge, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) revisits winners SWAP and ALFI – online of course. How are they doing now and what has become of their idea?
Edgar Suarez Garcia, runner-up in the prototyping category, has not been idle the last year. That much is clear as soon as our webcams connect. He is sitting in the office of his very own start-up company. A lab that he rents from WUR. Shortly after the ReThink Protein Challenge, he teamed up with dr. Corjan van den Berg and co-founded FUMI Ingredients. “We changed the name, but the idea and product are the same as I pitched during the challenge”.
Suarez Garcia was one of the students working on the project individually. His idea, named ALFI, was to isolate proteins from algae. “Algae use carbon dioxide to grow, so cultivating them reduces carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, making it a sustainable way to produce protein”, Suarez Garcia explains.
During the finals of the Challenge, Suarez Garcia presented a few grams of algae-extracted protein powder, made in the lab. One year later, his lab is actively producing this same ingredient at a larger scale. “We have been working hard on a proof of concept” he says. “Now we produced about 500 grams.” Not only the product has increased. Since its founding, FUMI ingredients doubled its team from two to four.
FUMI ingredients does not only produce proteins for its nutritional value, but also aims to imitate the experience that animal proteins offer. “Take baking a cake”, Suarez Garcia says. “Eggs in the batter give it a foamy touch, which is essential for the cake. If we replace those animal proteins with vegan ones, they need to behave the same way.”
About the ReThink Protein Challenge
The ReThink Protein Challenge is an international competition organised by Wageningen University & Research (WUR) that challenges individual students or teams to find alternative protein sources. The students develop a business plan or a prototype that could help feed the increasing world population in a way that is healthy, affordable and sustainable for our planet. The Challenge awards prizes in two categories: the best prototype and the best business plan.
What about the prize money you may wonder? It helped the young Columbian scientist pay for a patenting study, which investigates if it is feasible to patent the algae protein idea. “Unfortunately, it is a long procedure”, Suarez Garcia says. “It has been eight months and counting.” Once they have a patent in hand, FUMI ingredients aims to sell their technology to other companies.
Looking back, Suarez Garcia thinks the ReThink Protein Challenge has been a good step in his career. “I had been toying with the idea of a start-up before I entered the Challenge. But the competition gave me the confidence that I was moving in the right direction. It made me, and my product, stronger.”
Bumpy road for team SWAP
For Anjani Nayak and Fabiola Neitzel, who came up with the winning idea (SWAP) in the ideation category, the last year has been rather challenging. While both student still believe in the product, they now each work on it individually.
Last year the students presented a sustainable pet food, made with proteins of silkworm pupae, a discarded by-product of the silk industry. During the Challenge they turned that waste into valuable product by drying and grinding the pupae. By the end of the competition, they obtained a little jar of pupae protein powder and oil that the pet food industry can use as ingredient.
Legal difficulties impeded their plan of extracting proteins from silkworm pupae imported from India. “We now know that importing silkworm pupae, from Asia to Europe is not that straightforward”, Nayak says. “We spend a lot of time talking to border control, but we never got a clear view on shipping, because it is an unusual product to ship”. Moving the production site to India, while maintaining their headquarters in Europe was also not an option. “It is difficult to get funding in Europe to set up a production platform in another continent”, Neitzel explains.
Founding a company?
Neitzel plans to stay in Germany, and is now trying to find a way to set up a production platform in Germany under a new name. One of her first steps is to prove that the protein product of pupae are suitable and safe to eat for pets. Neitzel: “I hope to get these results in the next six months and can then slowly think about founding a company”.
Her former teammate is not founding a company just yet. “Currently I am applying for other jobs”, Nayak says. In the mean time she still works on the project in the background. “I might give it my full attention again later, but that all depends on my next job”. One thing is certain: when she does, it will be in India, close to the silk industry.
Despite the fact that both students go in different directions now, they learned a lot as a team in the last year. They used the 5000 euro prize money Nayak and Neitzel to visit India, the largest producer of silkworm pupae. “It was a productive visit where we met some of our partners and got better acquainted with the silk industry”, Nayak says. In addition, the students received a local scholarship that allowed them to take monthly workshops that focused on start-ups. “We have the Protein Challenge to thank for that: as a winner of the challenge, it is easier to get funding”, says Neitzel.
Both students agree on the enormous impact the ReThink Protein Challenge had on their lives. “We had such a nice time and received a lot of support”, Nayak says. “And afterwards we were very confident about our project that pitching it became a piece of cake”. For the German Neitzel the competition even changed her whole career: “If you do a bit more than the university expects of you, you can achieve a lot”.