Success of algae doctoral students in commercial competition
Five early-career researchers from the John Innes Center recently won the “Best Business Plan for Plants, Microbes and the Environment” award in the finals of a prestigious global entrepreneurship competition.
They developed and presented an idea to unlock the potential of kelp and provide sustainable solutions to combat methane emissions from livestock.
We met the doctoral students to learn more about their experiences in the Biotechnology Young Entrepreneur Scheme (BiotechYES) competition.
“We signed up for the Biotechnology Young Entrepreneur Scheme (Biotech YES) because we were all interested in how commercializing ideas and scientific discoveries can lead to the creation of a business.
BiotechYes is an innovative global competition developed to educate PhD students, post-docs and research staff at UK and international universities on how ideas can be brought to market by creating hypothetical, yet plausible business plans,” explains Calum Graham.
“Together we formed a team and decided on roles based on our particular interests, such as finance, operations, science or marketing,” describes Emilie Benne who assumed the role of general manager.
Calum, the scientific director of the project, continues: “As a team, we worked together to develop a hypothetical company before presenting the idea to potential investors and stakeholders.
We started by brainstorming ideas. These ideas ranged from bacteria boosting soil health to local climate prediction apps. We then voted on our favorite idea and brought it with us to a three-day workshop.
Our favorite idea was based on the principle that ruminant methane emissions can be reduced by supplementing livestock diets with certain seaweeds or seaweed extracts. We named our hypothetical business East Alga”.
Yang Yue, Marketing Director of the team, explains: “Focusing on an area of biology separate from our PhDs was refreshing. We have developed a deep interest and collected a lot of information about algae, including variety, habitatts, usage and market size.
Emily explains how they developed their idea: “On the first day of a three-day workshop with industry professionals in December, we had a meeting with a mentor who was not convinced that our initial product (a new variety of kelp) could be grown in native British waters.We took this advice and turned our whole business into a seaweed biorefining business, rather than a seaweed farming business.
It was a radical last minute change, but in the end it was essential for our winning pitch”.
“We made it to the final and managed to impress the Syngenta representative and walked away with the ‘Best Plant, Microbial and Environment Business Plan’ award, which we are very pleased with,” says Calum.
Looking back on Emily’s experience, “The competition had its stressful moments, but we all worked very well together to produce a business model we are proud of.”
“The teamwork aspect of the competition was really enjoyable. We also really enjoyed our sessions with the mentors, especially Jonathan Clarkand from the knowledge exchange and commercialization team at the John Innes Centre, Tomás Harrington from UEA and Yaomin Cai from the Earlham Institute,” adds Yang.
Andy Chen, the team’s operations manager, explains: “I learned to think differently. In the past, I always thought that if the technology was good for the planet or for people, investors would be interested. However, the truth is that most people/businesses won’t introduce new technology unless it saves them money or time.
Yang concludes, “A takeaway from this competition was to become adaptable and ready for unexpected challenges.”