Four University of Sheffield science researchers, including Grantham Scholar Chris Dutton, have won the nationwide Environment YES innovation competition, beating off challengers from universities across the UK by pitching an idea for fully recyclable paper cups.
The Sheffield team members were Jess Dunn and Grantham Scholar Chris Dutton, both PhD students in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology along with fellow PhD student Matt Wilson and postdoctoral scientist Chris Hepworth, both from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences.
The Environment YES competition is run by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) each year and aims to provide early career researchers with experience of commercialising research and applying it to a marketable product.
Jess explained: “Each team has to pitch an imaginary start-up company, albeit one that has believable science as its foundation. We then attended a three-day workshop that included presentations and mentoring sessions from leading figures in industry. These were incredibly useful to us in learning how to develop the finance, marketing and project management skills required by entrepreneurs.”
Matt said: “Environment YES is an amazing opportunity for early career researchers to learn business skills that we wouldn’t necessarily get to learn as part of our research training. It’s been a huge challenge to learn about intellectual property, fundraising and business planning, but the support we’ve had from the University of Sheffield and NERC has been great.”
Inspired by recent media attention highlighting the use of 2.7 billion non-recyclable disposable coffee cups by UK consumers each year, the team sought a solution to this problem. The Sheffield team’s company, Cutico, proposed the use of a waterproof layer derived from the plant cuticle (the waxy outer layer that protects leaves), enabling the cups to be fully recycled in the paper waste stream.
Professor Mike Siva-Jothy, Head of the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences congratulated Cutico. He said: “This team has worked incredibly hard to win Environment YES and I am delighted that they have done so well. It is really important that our early career researchers have these opportunities and hope to see many more Sheffield teams participating in this and similar competitions in the future.”
Cutico won the overall £2,500 first prize as well as the £500, Syngenta-sponsored, prize for the best plant, microbial and environmental business plan. Their success follow Grantham Scholars Hannah Sewell and James Lambert, who made it to the final of last year’s Environement YES contest.