It has been more than a year since Team Metallogen won SCI’s Bright SCIdea challenge, walking away with the £5,000 first prize. As SCI looks forward to the upcoming competition this March, which is open to both UK-based and international university teams, Metallogen’s John O’Sullivan and Rafael Hunt-Stokes share their thoughts on winning the competition and the next steps for their business.
Metallogen’s product offers a solution for the dual problem of shortages of heavy metals used in huge quantities by the electronics sector, and the subsequent contamination of farmland close to mining sites in the developing world. The mining of cadmium and other heavy metals such as cobalt, arsenic and lead, has led to catastrophic environmental impacts, from contaminating soils and greatly reducing crop yields, to introducing toxic metals into the food chain. Their solution is a nanoparticle spray that assists the natural process of phytoremediation to isolate extracted rare metals to be sold on the market.
Casting your mind back to the moment you were announced the winner of Bright SCIdea 2020, what were your initial thoughts?
On hearing ‘Metallogen’ announced as the winning team of the Bright SCIdea 2020 final, we were overcome with surprise. Every team at the final brought a cutting-edge solution to a pressing problem, deftly outlining how it could profitably go from lab to market. We felt honoured to be considered the winners among such a strong set of competitors.
After the initial wave of shock subsided, we felt liberated by the opportunity that now presented itself to us. For the first time, the idea that we came up with while casually chatting in our old undergraduate common room seemed to have a real shot of coming to life. Suddenly, what was once a pie-in-the-sky idea of launching a product to tackle metal pollution was within reach.
We can’t wait to hear from this year’s finalists, especially after hearing that the competition has expanded to include applicants from around the world. Best of luck in your final pitches!
What has happened since you won the competition and how has it helped develop your business skills and grow Metallogen?
We are currently working to refine our ‘miracle spray’ synthesis technique, and will soon be ready to take the next exciting step with a small-scale prototype in the field. Alongside this, we’ve been busy expanding our network, entering discussions with IP consultants and industry and policy experts. The Bright SCIdea Challenge has been a fantastic springboard, facilitating conversations between us and the expert judges, guest speakers and previous winners. The competition has also taught us how to carry out market research and put together a cogent business plan, with the pitching training giving us the ability to convey our business idea in a compelling manner to investors and other stakeholders.
In the process of getting to the final, there were several opportunities to engage with entrepreneurs, investors, business leaders, and experts in intellectual property (IP). Can you share key takeaways from these sessions and how you integrated these into your business idea?
One of the key takeaways for us came from our discussion with Victor Christou, one of the judges on the panel, regarding IP. Coming from a purely academic background, we were thinking of IP in a much too narrow way. Victor opened our eyes to the possibility of not just protecting our end product, but also key steps of our manufacturing process and application method. This insight fed into our future discussions with patent attorneys and changed our focus on which facet of Metallogen was most important to secure IP protection.
During the final, you said you planned to test the product in China and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Do you still plan to do this?
Using what we learned during the competition, we conducted further research into precisely defining our total addressable market. After several discussions with industry experts, we now envision an initial product launch in India. We see our product as readily integrable into the extensive network of small soybean farms in the state of Madhya Pradesh, where metal pollution is persistently an issue. We also hope to take advantage of several new innovation initiatives launched by the Indian government to reduce pollution in the Ganga River (which has many major tributaries in Madhya Pradesh).
Soils have risen up the international agenda in terms of their impact on human health and importance in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What is the scale of the problem and how could your product help?
The SDGs are a key motivator behind the aims of Metallogen, particularly SDG numbers 2 (zero hunger), 3 (health and wellbeing) and 12 (responsible consumption and production). About 95% of global food production fundamentally relies on soil. Healthy soils allow for increased crop yields, providing food security for billions of people around the world. Put simply, healthy soils are essential for human life on Earth.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, at least 33% of the Earth’s fertile soil has been degraded. Moreover, they suggest that the remaining fertile soil may be completely depleted in the next century. This is an alarming statistic, especially as we enter an unprecedented century of population growth and climate change. It should be a priority to remediate the damaged soil on farmland so that we can sustainably feed a growing population.
The results of COP26 have taught us that we can’t wait around for large governments or companies to bring about a change. We intend to take this into our own hands and work to make a difference. We are excited for the next phase of Metallogen’s growth, moving one step closer to our “BrightSCIdea” having a real-world impact.
Inspired by Metallogen’s success at Bright SCIdea? Find out more about the competition on our Bright SCIdea page.