The interdisciplinary teams were crowned a “champion of champions” in the annual Engineers in Business Competition

Innovative Exeter student-led projects secure double award success

Two innovative student-led projects, to create a washing machine filter that breaks down plastic microfibres and bring sustainable biofuel to remote communities in Africa, have secured a double success in a prestigious national competition.

The interdisciplinary teams were crowned a “champion of champions” in the annual Engineers in Business Competition, which pits teams of university student innovators against each other to win vital seed funding to progress their business idea. 

One team, led by Jonathan Elliot (Mechanical Engineer), won a trophy, mentoring and £3,000 for their innovation which is branded PETexe - a washing machine filter that traps microplastics released from synthetic clothing during the machine-washing process.

The second team, comprising of Zain Shaikh (BA Geography), Izzy Zillig (BSc Economics), Harriet Needham (BA International Relations) and Hannah Clift (BSc Engineering), secured a trophy and £1,500 for their brainchild, BioSmart. 

BioSmart is an initiative that revolves around the creation and commercialisation of Biochar, a cleaner alternative to charcoal, on the African continent. The team designed furnaces that can burn organic agricultural waste under pyrolysis in order to produce biochar locally, giving communities full autonomy of the creation and profit of the valuable resource.

The Engineers in Business Competition provides prize funds that are integrated into each partner university’s existing offering.  The undergraduates and postgraduates who take part and win a prize in their university competitions then enter the EIBC Champion of Champions Final for a chance to win further seed funding.  The EIBC prize fund is provided by Engineers in Business Fellowship whose patron is Lord Sainsbury of Turville.   

Commenting on their success at the Champion of Champions Final, Jonathan from PETexe said: “We have put a lot of hard work into both PETexe and the competition, so it's great to have such an amazing achievement to show for it.  This is a great moment for the whole team and the prize will go a long way to helping us realise our ambitions. We are also thankful for all the support we have received along the way, particularly from the University of Exeter Student Start-Up Team in these last couple of months.

“Plastic is a problem in many areas of society, in some areas it can be recycled and reused but in others, it ends up accumulating in nature or in landfill. Bacteria and enzyme research have meant that for the last few years we have been able to break down plastic, fully degrading it, but this process is too slow for most applications. However, we thought that the unique aspect ratios and size of microplastics mean that this technology becomes viable again. 

“After testing we showed that this was possible and have been working on making it a viable product. With legislation in France meaning that by 2025 all-new washing machines will require a microplastic filter built-in, we hope that we can use our connections in the home appliance sector to develop our technology for wider use, resulting in a significant reduction of microplastic waste.”

Professor John Love, who helped supervise the team for the project said: “PETexe has proved to be a great idea with great potential to improve our world.  Innovation happens when disciplines intersect and this team of students combined synthetic biology, modelling, engineering and business skills to design their plastic-degrading filter and their B2B business plan.  I am proud of the team, their achievements and their well-deserved success.”

Meanwhile Izzy Zillig, from BioSmart, explained one of the key drivers behind the initiative: “The original needs assessment of Kadzinuni in Kenya showed that women and children were walking for up to three hours every other day to collect illegal wood charcoal from a distant market or resorted to illegally chopping down trees themselves for fuelwood.

“This initiative saves women from having to make such an arduous journey, as well as providing them with a critical additional income. This income is particularly important as it allows the woman to buy their children clothes and provide them with education.”

Commenting on their success Izzy said: “We are absolutely delighted to have won this prize money from the Engineering in Business Competition.  As a team, we are really excited to use it to help scale the project and continue our progress.   This money will be used to invest in new technology that will help us increase the amount of biochar we are able to make.  Thanks again to everyone involved in this competition for helping us to keep doing good work!”

Jeni Reeve, from the SETSquared Student Startups Team said: “We are thrilled to see both University of Exeter finalists, PETexe and BioSmart succeed in the Engineers In Business Final after their respective winning entries in the university’s own Elevate Competition earlier this year.

“Exeter's Elevate competition and the national Engineers in Business Competition are incredible opportunities for students to demonstrate the versatility and compatibility of engineering skills in entrepreneurship, particularly in showcasing big ideas for positive social change, and tackling lglobal issues such as plastic pollution and fuel poverty.”

EIBF’s President, David Falzani MBE, explained the rationale for awarding universities  £700,000 over four years for business ideas competitions: “Research tells us that introducing business education to young engineers and technologists makes them better engineers, makes them more employable, more effective in the workplace and it is better for the UK economy. 

“What is exceptional about the young engineers and technologists who are engaging with business ingenuity is that they are developing concepts while in education and many go on to develop real businesses that tackle problems in society.  They are bringing new technologies to people and will create jobs.  We are absolutely delighted for both the PETexe and BioSmart teams and look forward to seeing how their projects develops in the coming months.”

It was a pleasure to support both teams as they embark on their entrepreneurial journeys, and we will look forward to providing ongoing support through the Student Startup programme to enable them to continue to grow their ventures.”

Date: 29 October 2020