SCI’s Bright SCIdea challenge is an annual entrepreneurship competition that allows UK and ROI students to develop and showcase their business skills.
Teams are asked to develop a plausible scientific concept that could be commercialised for the benefit of society and receive free, accredited business planning training throughout the competition.
They submit a full business plan, detailing how their idea can be taken to market, and shortlisted teams are then invited to pitch their idea to a panel of experts at the final to win a significant cash prize.
This year, five teams made it to the final and on 5 November in the new online setting, pitched their unique scientific business plans to our expert panel of judges: Lucinda Bruce- Gardyne, Founder of Genius Foods; and Robin Harrison, Vice President Tecnhology Platforms at Synthomer.
First up were Team AATBox – short for It’s All About the Box – a team of four from UCL.
AATBox’s product is a plastic-free alternative to plastic food containers, made from food by-products such as rice hulls with a special peptide that enhances the material’s cohesive properties.
As well as using sustainable materials in the product’s production, AATBox proposed a circular manufacture-to-decomposition model, whereby areas of large-scale consumption of the material would be provided with the means to compost the packaging after use, with the biodegraded material collected later for re-use by AATBox. Provincial customers, meanwhile, would be encouraged to use DIY composting kits to turn the used material into compost.
The team presented some impressive market research and planning, aiming their product predominantly at the takeaway restaurant and supermarket sectors, forecasting a net profit of £75k by Year 2, and £8.7m by Year 4.
Commending the team and acknowledging the societal need for AATBox’s product, Robin Harrison asked about the cost basis of the product and how it might thrive in the competitive market for recyclable packaging. The team shared their plans for engaging their customers and making them part of the wider green revolution. The team added that they were keen to ensure that their product could be recycled through existing facilities.
Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne asked how the team would ensure the quality control of the rice hull raw material and keep track of the supply chain. The team said that this was an area that was being worked on and a six-month optimisation process was in hand. However, the peptide would be produced in the UK.
Next up were Team Metallogen, also from UCL. The team framed their product within the dual problem of shortages of heavy metals used in huge quantity by the electronics sector, and the subsequent contamination of farmland close to mining sites in the developing world.
The mining of cadmium and other heavy metals such as cobalt, arsenic and lead, they noted, has led to catastrophic environmental impacts, from contaminating soils such that crop yield is greatly reduced, to introducing toxic metals into the food chain.
Their solution is a titanium oxide nanoparticle that assists the natural process of phytoremediation to isolate these extracted rare metals to be sold on the market. The product would first be used in the Chinese market specifically to target cadmium ions, but the team plans to trial the method for cobalt and arsenic in the Democratic Republic of Congo and India.
Phytoremediation removes heavy metals from contaminated soils, and is naturally carried out by plants such as soy – Team Metallogen’s nanoparticle embedded spray serves to greatly accelerate the inadmissibly slow natural process, removing the need for energy-intensive and therefore unviable forms of phytoremediation currently available.
Kicking off the questions, Victor Christou asked about the impact of spraying nanoparticles into the environment. The team explained that while the TiO2 was used in a low concentration in its product, it was also an important component of sunscreens and therefore a relatively well understood compound.
Robin Harrison was impressed by the fact that the team’s proposition solved multiple problems in one go and asked if regulatory hurdles had been considered as the team had talked about testing their product in a number of countries. The team said that it did not anticipate too many hurdles due to the nature of the product it was using and the fact that its product would help with multiple problems including improved health. However, the team said that it was an area they were investigating further.
Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne added that the product had great potential for bringing brown field sites, that may have been contaminated, back into use.
BioUnite, a team of three multidisciplinary biological chemistry researchers from the University of Sheffield, followed with their antimicrobial and anticancer drug screening facility. They pitched a service offering simple activity assays through to an in vivo invertebrate model, with discounted rates for university research groups to help them identify therapeutic leads.
Their intention is to reduce the cost of preclinical biological testing of drug candidates for universities, and the team demonstrated excellent market discovery acumen, distributing a range of surveys to academics and holding meetings with CROs, providing backing to their claim that there is a high need for such a business within academic research.
BioUnite divide their service into three ‘packages’ – an antimicrobial screening method for bacteria; an in vivo model using a wax moth larvae toxicity screen and infection model to eliminate non-starters prior to any testing on vertebrates; and an anticancer screening service.
Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne praised the team on their idea and asked how they would maintain quality while at the same time reducing cost, bearing in mind the significant investment required to bring a drug to market.
The team said that their process would allow costly stages such as animal testing to be removed completely. Also they would focus on the forgotten molecules which they would be able to rapidly screen for their efficacy in a particular application.
Victor Christou asked how the team might scale their business and if it was feasible to move from testing molecules to drug discovery.
The team explained that it intended to use its existing skill sets to grow the testing business but also cited companies that had successfully combined a model similar to theirs with a drug discovery arm.
Robin Harrison agreed that there were many forgotten molecules that could have potential in therapeutic applications and commended the team on their work.
The penultimate pitch was delivered by Team QMUL – from Queen Mary University of London – who presented a system of solar power generation they call ‘Solar 2.0’. It comprises a glass structure that absorbs photons from sunlight vertically, an optic fibre power line and a local power receiver box.
Being made of glass, the photon-receiving alternative technology to traditional silicon based solar cells could be built ‘as large as a nuclear power plant’ without obstructing any other spectrums of light, allowing sunlight to continue to shine on surrounding green areas.
The team has already developed hundreds of different glass structures of shapes and sizes to suit different regions and environments, and claims to do away with the inefficiency of long-distance overhead wires by focusing on delivering energy to localised receiver boxes.
Robin Harrison acknowledged that the project is big and bold, commenting on the novel idea of using optical wires so that there is no energy loss. He asked what the next steps were to find a prototype to prove the technology in the real world. The team responded that they had already created a prototype and emphasized the need for multiple region-dependent designs.
Lucinda asked about the cost of the structures and their practicality for private use. The team explained that the cost would depend on the nation it’s sold in and that they would sell the idea and design. They added that the overall cost would be low, due to the inexpensive materials used to make the receiver box; the team estimates that a receiver box to generate the electricity in London would cost just £10.
Lucinda made a couple of suggestions including using the glass structures as windows. It was agreed that this was possible and that this is one of the many structural designs that is part of the business plan. Lucinda also suggested the creation of urban hubs with the glass structures used to grow vegetables locally, thereby reducing the supply chain.
Victor followed with a cost comparison question regarding the use of fibre optic cables for photons versus a simple wire traditionally used for transmitting electricity. The team acknowledged that fibre optic cables are expensive, but would be cheaper in the long-term due to the improved overall benefits such as the long lifetime of the glass structures.
The fifth and final team of the third Bright SCIdea Challenge Final was Team Catchmaps, comprising students from the University of Reading and Cranfield University. Their proprietary algorithm converts satellite imagery into detailed, land-use categorised maps and subsequent maps that identify approximate carbon levels in each region.
The technology is aimed at farmers, serving the dual purpose of providing evidence to regulators on their net-zero credentials and helping them to identify how to reduce their carbon cost without reducing profit.
Catchmaps detailed their service’s two-tiered subscription model, with a basic tier providing users with reports detailing their carbon coverage, and a higher tier where the users would be provided with bespoke interpretation of the data and advice on maximising profit while reducing carbon.
Victor asked how they would defend their business, when others may have access to their satellite data. The team explained how they would use AI to interpret the data in a way that has not been done before. They added that they would welcome the competition, because global expansion would make the world a better place, agreeing with Victor that the market is big enough to cope with more than one company of this idea.
Robin asked about the robustness of data for helping farmers with their carbon credits and demonstrating to the government their carbon footprint. They replied that this accuracy can be shared with farmers and also improved by uncertainty mapping, and then target these areas to test the data, and thereby improving the alogrithms.
Lucinda commended the team for their interesting idea and asked about the organisational structure with respect to a potentially large workload for bespoke data generation. Catchmaps said they would work with their farmers on a regional basis.
The judges decide
As the judges retired to privately deliberate on another tightly contested, top-quality Bright SCIdea Challenge final, Paul Colbon, Chief Executive Officer, Liverpool Chirochem, gave a talk ‘From bench-top to board room; my personal reflections of starting and building a tech company’, where he talked through the journey of growing his business. He emphasised the importance of focusing on the commercial application when pitching to an investor. He added that strong KPIs are absolutely vital and that a strong business can only be built with common values. He highlighted that Liverpool Chirochem is based on team spirit, focus and forward thinking.
Natasha Boulding, CEO and Co-Founder of Plastech Innovation – last year’s winning team – gave a winner’s perspective on the Bright SCIdea Challenge. Natasha explained how Bright SCIdea provided them as scientists with business acumen and validation from industry experts. She added that Plastech became a registered business not long after winning the challenge last year, and has reached a number of milestones since then.
With that, the judges returned to announce the results of this year’s competition. The judges made the decision based on several factors: whether there is a market and viable business plan, the ambition, enthusiasm and overall quality of the pitches, and whether the £5,000 investment prize could make a difference.
The winners were Team Metallogen, who the judges said addressed big societal issues on multiple layers and would benefit from the £5,000 investment to get their trials underway.
— John O'Sullivan (@johnosullivannn) November 5, 2020
Second place went to BioUnite; due to their efforts already to get the business moving forward.
— Fliss Noakes (@FlissNoakes) November 5, 2020
Finally, third place went to QMUL, Robin announced, for their energy and sheer number of experiments done.
Before closing the final, Sharon Todd revealed the results of the ‘Audience’s Favourite’ poll, conducted after the pitches. This also went to second-runner-up, Team QMUL, and Sharon praised the team’s representative for delivering the pitch on behalf of the other members.