30 teams make it to next round of ReThink Protein Challenge’2

Back in January, 49 teams from 41 different universities spread over 18 countries across 5 continents started the ReThink Protein Challenge’2. Last week, after 1,5 months of hard work, the students handed in their milestones reports, in which they presented their solutions. The 30 contestants to make it to the next round were announced in the second online event of the ReThink Protein Challenge’2, held on the 3rd of March.

The programme started with a presentation and short interview with Fabiola Neitzel, one of two team members of team SWAP, who won the first edition of the ReThink Protein Challenge back in 2019 and has now founded her own company. Team SWAP created a solution for processing silkworm pupa from India into protein that can be used as a supplement in animal food. Winning the challenge has made a huge impact on her life, Fabiola tells us. But how did she go from winning the ReThink Protein Challenge to starting her own business?

After winning the challenge, a lot was happening: we were giving interviews and speaking at conferences. Luckily, Wageningen University & Research gave us a lot of support and possibilities to work on our idea and to connect us with companies. I am very thankful for that.

After winning the challenge, Fabiola and her team mate received a full-time start-up scholarship that gave them the opportunity to work on their project for 6 months. In this phase they realized that a student challenge and coming up with a real business are two completely different things. After these 6 months, team SWAP decided to go their separate ways and Fabiola continued with the business by herself.

‘I took the step and founded a company called Prombyx, which is a combination of protein and bombyx mori, the Latin name of the silkworm. Right now we have employees in India and Germany and our goal is to produce silkworm products as an ingredient for the European pet food industry.’

Innovation in protein transition

Next, it was time for the second episode of the Protein Shift Series, in which experts from WUR and companies that are partners of the Challenge discuss protein transition. In this episode dr. Laurice Pouvreau, Leader Protein Technology at Wageningen University & Research, Alejandro Amezquita, Future Bio-based Ingredient R&D Director at Unilever, and Wim Hilbrands, Project Director at DSM reflected on the role of innovation.

Innovation is essential to achieve the protein transition, yet there is no clear answer to what kind of innovation we need: a plant-based product that imitates traditional animal products or a tasty and nutritional plant-based product that does not resemble the traditional ones?

The experts agreed that it is essential to look at the different consumer groups. According to Alejandro Amezquita, the main drivers for consumers to shift to plant-based food are health, environmental concerns and animal welfare. It is not only vegans and vegetarians who reach for plant-based options.

Wim Hilbrands emphasized the importance of collaborations between companies. ‘A company cannot innovate and be the change all by itself’. Therefore, collaboration between companies, institutes and even students in this challenge are really important.’ One of the main challenges in making tasty plant-based products is that many of the animal-based products are very good and functional. Mimicking that will be very difficult and therefore challenges us to look at plant proteins that are functional in a different way, without mimicking animal products.

Finding new protein sources

When it comes to the protein sources, the experts agree that we need to explore more and new options, from aquatic as well as terrestrial resources. Where DSM is looking at a whole range of sources, from plant and fermentation sources to cultured meat, as a potential for the future, Unilever is mostly looking at diversifying plants. ‘We are open to anything and use three criteria for rating the options: cost and upscaling, taste and clean label, and people and planet.’ Even more controversial alternatives like insects and cultivated meats are a serious option, if they meet the above criteria. In the end, everyone agrees that it’s up to the consumer to choose what they feel comfortable with.

Announcement of the top 30

Before announcing 30 teams who made it to the second round, Sergiy Smetana, one of the members of the jury and head of the food Data Group at DIL (the German institute of food technology) reflected on the quality of the ideas submitted for the Challenge:

‘It was extremely hard to decide. Not only the number of the submissions went up compared to last year, the quality did as well.

To everyone who didn’t make it to the next round, he has comforting words: ‘You may not be part of the next round, but you would have never forgiven yourself if you hadn’t at least tried. Don’t forget that.’

You can find the winning teams here: https://rethinkprotein.nl/candidates

In the coming 2,5 months, the top 30 teams will focus on validating their initial ideas. They will follow PR, Business Model and Pitching training and get help from over 40 experienced coaches from 30 companies with various fields of expertise.

On the 3rd of June the finalists will be announced during the 3rd episode of the Protein Shift Series, in which we will focus on the consumer perspective of the protein transition.

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