Scholars through to competition final for innovative startup idea

Ben Ward and Giannis Xanthis from Cardiovascular Science with Grantham Scholars Hannah Sewell and James Lambert.
Ben Ward and Giannis Xanthis from Cardiovascular Science with Grantham Scholars Hannah Sewell and James Lambert.

A pair of Grantham Scholars have earned a place in the final of a competition to find the next generation of environmental innovators.

Hannah Sewell and James Lambert took part in an Environment YES workshop at the University of Nottingham.

Working with students from Sheffield’s Department of Cardiovascular Science, they were tasked with coming up with an idea for a hypothetical company that would solve an environmental problem.

Their plan was to use RNAi technology to control genes that determine crops’ resistance to drought. Having come out on top, they’ll be taking their ideas to the Environment YES final in London on Thursday 10 December.

Below, Hannah explains a bit more about the competition and their startup idea:

“The basic premise of the competition was to come up with an idea of a product that could be used to fulfil a gap in a market, create a business plan presentation around it and then pitch for money to start up this business. As we were in Environment YES we had to follow their themes which were:

resilience to environmental hazards
benefiting from natural resources
managing environmental change

“We decided to look at resilience to drought which also fell under managing environmental change. Our basic product idea was inducable drought resistance. Farmers at the moment have to decide in advance whether to plant drought tolerant seed and getting it wrong costs them money, either in what they spend on seed or their yield loss during drought. Our product was a spray that would use RNAi technology to turn off a fictional drought suppressant gene thereby inducing drought tolerance whenever needed.

“The real star of the imaginary product though was our fictional RNAi delivery spray which we said stabilised the RNA and encouraged the plant to take up the RNA. This spray could therefore be used to also induce cold tolerance, heat tolerance, salt tolerance, pest resistance etc, if you could find the right gene to suppress

“We had to look at things like how patents worked, how you would go about marketing, how you value a company, how you can get money to set up a business, how important it is to tell people why your product is amazing and not just what it is. We also had to look at regulation, how much of a market there was for such a product, who our competitors would be, how much it would cost to produce the product, if we could license out the product etc.

“We had two days to put together the presentation and then on the third day we pitched it to the judges. We were up against five other teams, one of which was also from Sheffield. The judges were all from industry and we won our stream, so we are going to London where we will present again against people who have won at other workshops for a prize of £2500 for the team and a trip to the Rice business plan competition in Texas.

“The overall idea of the competition is to get early career scientists to think about how science can be commercialised and used and to give training in patents, finance, marketing and just general presentation skills.”

Environment YES is organised by The University of Nottingham’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Natural Environment Research Council.

Environment YES
Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Natural Environment Research Council