MIB postgraduate research group scoop top prize in business competition

Four researchers; PDRAs Oksana Bilyk, Erik Hanko, and Kris Niño Valdehuesa, and PhD student Katherine Baker, from the Takano and Breitling research groups have won this year's North West Biotech Initiative business idea competition. This year's competition theme challenged participants to come up with ideas that would address global health and well-being or climate change and sustainability.

The team's winning idea was a fictional business (EKKO) that could tackle the problem of fatbergs. Fatbergs have had a high media profile over the last few years, with many causing issues in large cities all over the world. Fatbergs are caused by the build-up of fat and grease, combined with other "non-flushable" products combining into a solid mass that blocks up sewers.

The current solution for fatbergs is to send people into the sewer to break them up and then dispose of the waste in landfills. With so much other waste going to landfill, this solution is not sustainable long-term. This is where the competition team had the idea of using engineered yeast to break down the fatbergs into useful products such as single cell protein and oil as sustainable alternatives to conventional fish feed.

"While our company is fictional, the science behind it is real" says Oksana Bilyk, one of the researchers on the winning team, "if we could turn a big problem like fatbergs into something useful, it could have huge socioeconomic impact".

Current fishmeal is produced by using wild-caught fish which has significant environmental problems for marine ecosystems. If a yeast could be developed to break down fatbergs, then it would no longer be necessary to deplete wild fish stocks to raise captive commercial fish.

The North West Biotech Initiative (NBI) business idea competition is an annual competition run by the NBI that is designed to give students entrepreneurial experience, something that team EKKO were keen to develop.

"During the workshops we learned a lot about what it takes to develop and run a business. The competition has helped us to rethink how we approach science and look at how we can build a commercial product from the work we are doing." says team captain Erik Hanko.

The NBI is a platform that supports students to meet and work with local and international businesses and industry experts. Founded in 2014 by two PhD students, the NBI has gone on to connect not only post-graduates but those earlier in their academic careers with businesses and industry professionals.

Kris Valdehuesa says of the competition; "We're really grateful for this experience, the competition has been a perfect opportunity to learn what it takes to be successful in business and we're really glad we took part".

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