Saturday, December 2, 2023

Victoria University backs enviro startups for £1m prizes

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The envirommental charity founded by Prince William offering a total of £5m to the winners of five categories
Sea Forest Limited has developed a seaweed-based feed supplement that has the potential to reduce the methane released by livestock.
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Victorian University of Wellington has nominated three technology startup companies for bids to win £1 million ($1.98m) each from an environmental charity founded by Prince William.

The Earthshot Prize is offering a total of £5m to the winners of five categories, which will be announced this year. The five categories are Protect and Restore Nature, Clean Our Air, Revive Our Oceans, Fix Our Climate, and Build a Waste-free World.

The top 15 finalists will receive mentoring from international specialists on how to scale up their ideas. The annual awards are expected to run until 2030.

The three entries cover diverse fields, with one using seaweed to reduce livestock emissions, another devising a reusable building-frame system, and the third creating a biodegradable plastic substitute using bee genes.

Last month, former prime minister Jacinda Ardern joined the Earthshot Prize board of trustees, which is chaired by Christiana Figueres, an architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

At the time of Ardern’s appointment, Prince William was quoted as saying she had been one of the first people he had spoken to about the idea four years ago. 

“Her encouragement and advice were crucial to the prize’s early success,” he said.

Victoria University’s director of sustainability, Andrew Wilks, said the Earthshot Prize is based on United States president John F Kennedy’s moonshot goal of the 1960s.

“They’re trying to channel efforts into saving our planet,” Wilks said.

The university had been approached by the Earthshot Prize to act as a sponsor and this is the third time it has put out the call for possible entries.

“We use our networks to have our finger on the pulse of good projects happening in this part of the world.”

The competition is going to be stiff as Wilks said Earthshot has received more than 1100 nominations from more than 100 countries. 

The university went beyond New Zealand to choose its three contenders, although one company was spun out from its own Wellington School of Architecture.

Sea Forest Limited has entered Earthshot’s Fix Our Climate category. The Tasmanian company has developed a seaweed-based feed supplement that has the potential to reduce the methane released by livestock.

Wilks said that often growing seaweed for marine health and carbon absorption is seen as an end in itself. 

“The main benefit of it is in helping the digestion of cows and sheep so that they are producing less methane emissions.”

Sea Forest’s product was based on strong science and could be a game-changer for global agricultural practices, he said. 

Wellington-based startup Humble Bee Bio is entered into the Build a Waste-free World category.

The company has identified a species of solitary bee that produces a kind of “bioplastic” to waterproof its nest. It has used the undisclosed bee species’ genetic blueprint to develop that material at scale using microbes.

Wilks said it is a high-tech innovation that is still in the laboratory stage of development. The startup is using a kind of bio-mimicry to come up with a product with the performance of plastic but which is non-toxic and biodegradable.

In its early stages, the company had help in setting up from the university’s Ferrier Research Institute, which tackles applied chemistry problems.

In May last year, Humble Bee Bio raised $5m in an oversubscribed funding round for the development of alternative water-repellant coatings.

Closest to home for Victoria University is XFrame, a company spun out of its School of Architecture with help from the university’s commercialisation arm, Wellington Univentures. It’s also entered into the Build a Waste-free World  category.

XFrame’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Ged Finch, came up with its modular reusable frame and cladding system through his PhD work at the School of Architecture.

Wilks described the technology as Lego for the building industry. The load-bearing frames and cladding clip together and could be easily reconfigured during later renovations.

“It massively reduces the amount of waste that’s being produced from all those renovation projects.”

In September last year, Ardern, as NZ prime minister, spoke on Prince William’s behalf at the Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit in New York. She said the award was turning into the Nobel prize equivalent for innovation and environmentalism.

Ardern pointed to NZ’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund, which helped fund a project with Silver Fern Farms to work with farmers on understanding their farm’s carbon footprint better. 

“The information they’ve gathered has helped establish and verify a market proposition for low and zero carbon beef from NZ.”

Earthshot’s five 2022 winners were from India, Australia, Oman, the United Kingdom and Kenya. 

The Build a Waste-free World category was won by London-based startup Notpla for a biodegradable plastic alternative made from seaweed and plants. 

The Fix Our Climate award was won by Omani company 44.01 for a permanent carbon capture technique that speeds up CO2’s natural mineralisation process in peridotite rocks.

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