In October 2016, we’re going to be launching an exciting Challenge to support entrepreneurial scientists who are changing the world through renewable energy solutions.
“Instead of mosquitoes killing us, we’re killing them.”
The eave tube is a simple plastic pipe with a remarkable mosquito-killing gauze fitted into the walls beneath the roofs of African houses. It’s one of several life-saving innovations to be born underneath the mango tree, thanks to Dr Bart Knols and a team of more than 40 researchers from five countries, that he orchestrates.
As a renowned authority in malaria, Bart got tired of writing research papers about mosquitoes without putting that knowledge into practice…so he decided to set up a company that does just that. Not an easy decision when a glittering and comfortable career in academia beckons and you have a family and mortgage to consider…
Having raised all-important funding from the EU, Bart’s team decided to develop simple and affordable new tools to combat mosquitoes. So to help brainstorm ideas for killing malaria, he and a team of scientists flew out to Tanzania, where the disease is rife. But this team wasn’t full of entomologists like himself. Instead it brought together experts from unrelated fields, with different ideas and backgrounds. And together, they did their thinking and talking…underneath a mango tree: Very fruitful it proved too.
The result was the simple eave tube. Today, more than 1,500 homes in Tanzania have been fitted with eave tubes, protecting some 7,000 people. Bart’s dream is to tackle a further 1.2 million homes around Lake Victoria where malaria infects every third child. Tubes are reducing the number of malaria mosquitoes indoors by 85-90%. “For the first time in a very long time people tell us they are sleeping more peacefully at night,” says Bart.
And since dedicating his life to the massacre of malaria, so is he.
“I thought that if these crazy people asking for funding can start a business, so can I.”
What if we could produce plastic using one of nature’s most potent greenhouse gases (methane)? And what if that plastic wasn’t harmful to the environment but naturally biodegradable? What impact might an innovation like this have on the oceans, global warming, and the seemingly inevitable droughts, floods and human suffering it will cause to future generations?
This is the question that drifted into the mind of Molly Morse one fine day in California while consulting for a venture capital firm and listening to yet another bioscience pitch from people who didn’t really know what they were talking about; and then suddenly realizing that: She did.
Within a few weeks Molly was learning how to create a start-up company from scratch. As a result, Mango Materials’ first field lab was based inside an old shipping container, with just one computer shared between four people, and not enough chairs.
The inspiration? Molly had conducted PhD research at Stanford University involving the production and biodegradation of a naturally occurring biopolymer, polyhydroxyalkanote (PHA). As a result she and her colleagues succeeded in creating a unique way of producing PHA using bacteria fed by methane.
And so, she decided to commercialize it.
Today, Mango Materials can produce methane-based PHA at cost parity to oil-based plastics. The current goal is to scale-up production to ten million pounds of biodegradable plastic, which requires a staggering half billion cubic feet of methane: Gas that would otherwise be trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming up our planet.
“We couldn’t immediately figure out a way to make it…but then again, we couldn’t figure out why not.”
“Most of us don’t realize what the human body is capable of until it’s too late.”
So says Robert Irving, co-inventor of REX – an astonishing ‘walking machine’ like no other. It contains 29 computers (the brain); 10 power Units (the muscles); hundreds of wires (the nerves); and a frame (the skeleton). Plus a joystick for steering. A total of 4,320 components – of which 4,318 are custom-made.
Like many great inventions it was born out of necessity. Robert was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis back in 2004 and with it an 80% chance of being wheelchair-bound. His best pal (and fellow engineer) Richard Little suggested they invent a pair of bionic legs to help him.
“We sat in the pub and scribbled down the first, very rough blueprint on the back of a beer coaster. It then took two years of working weekends in the garage before we finally had a working version, able to walk by itself.”
After a further six years and many ‘dark nights’ (including the sacrifice of family time, sleep and at times, sanity) they received funding for their start up, Rex Bionics.
Today, REX bionic legs are benefitting people from Korea to the United States, from paraplegics or stroke sufferers. For these people - for now at least - technology has beaten medicine in the race to help them walk again.
“Every time REX helps someone stand up it’s a deeply emotional experience for everyone,” he says. People have to literally re-imagine their lives again.”
With an estimated five million potential users in Europe and the United States alone, work has now begun on the next REX.
As for Robert, he continues to stand on his own two feet – in every respect.
“With billions of people hungry for protein, spirulina could be the spinach of the future.”
Back in the 1970s, spirulina - a high-protein, bright green algae found in remote corners of the world - was hailed as the “super food of the future”. With three times the protein of a chicken breast but just a fraction of the carbon footprint…how could it not be?
Several decades of disappointment followed. Even NASA scientists couldn't grow it truly efficiently (although of course growing any plant on a spacecraft is quite some challenge). Since then spirulina has been grown in laboratories and in both natural and man-made lakes. And now…the rooftops of Bangkok.
It's the ultimate in urban farming: Using otherwise vacant real estate to grow crops. And it's all the brainchild of Saumil Shah - a former aerospace engineer who decided to leave his corporate job and become a social entrepreneur.
"What always fascinated me was the ability of spirulina to remove CO2 from our atmosphere and use it to grow very quickly. In fact spirulina can double its mass in two to four days." Today, some 1,500 square meters of Bangkok urban space (including the roof of the famous Novotel in Siam Square) is doubling as a spirulina farm. The plant is growing in semi-transparent and interconnected plastic tubs that feed through to a centralized harvesting unit, thus requiring very little space, water and manual labor compared to traditional methods.
Which is why Saumil's company EnerGaia is today providing spirulina in fresh paste, powdered, and frozen formats - as well as a range of spirulina pastas and bottled fruit juices.
Not that it’s been easy. “I began in 2009 and have been largely self-funded ever since. Sometimes I wonder if I'm throwing my savings away but then I see our products benefitting real people and realize it’s too late to stop now. Although we could definitely use some help from like-minded people!”
EnerGaia has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign offering its sprulina products as rewards. For anyone interested in supporting this cause please see the link below.
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An unsung scientific hero doing great things for society?
An obscure product or solution that is changing the world?
A discovery or an idea that could benefit people or planet?
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