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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Prize-Winning Startups Creating Soil, Infrastructure Tech of the Future

Climate change demands new ways of thinking and startups have been rising to the challenge. Among the latest, the winners of the Living Product Prize and the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge took home cash prizes to develop their soil filtration systems and energy-generating windows, and a Voom business award-winning entrepreneur has plans to build plastic roads in Scotland.

The $10,000 Living Product Prize was awarded to a University of Oregon design team for their Living Filtration System, which is designed to create healthier soils by preventing nutrients from leaving fields in runoff. Their victory was announced at the Living Product Expo in Pittsburgh last week.

Inspired by the form and function of earthworms, wetlands and the human small intestine, the Living Filtration System is a transitional technology designed to mitigate the environmental impact of agriculture. It was created to replace conventional agricultural drainage systems and capture excess nutrients in runoff, reducing fertilizer use and improving soil health.

“Living Filtration System has proven the adage that if it exists, it must be possible,” said International Living Future Institute (ILFI) CEO Amanda Sturgeon, in presenting the award. “With an elegant design and a sustainable intention, the Living Filtration System was inspired by biomimicry, mimicking the form and function of earthworms in creating natural filtration systems. This innovative product has the real potential to transform agriculture.”

The Living Product Prize is a new initiative of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, hosted by the Biomimicry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, with the goal of highlighting products that incorporate biomimetic design principles. Entries for the Prize must meet the Living Product Challenge requirements set by the IFLI. The $1,500 student prize was awarded to AquaCity Garden back in August.

“The Living Product Challenge criteria provide excellent guidance for how teams can apply nature’s deep principles to the design of their products,” said Megan Schuknecht, the Biomimicry Institute’s director of design challenges. “The criteria emphasize outcomes that help our design challenge teams situate their designs and business plans within a regenerative, systems context. Together with the International Living Future Institute, we are working to transform products and systems to be in harmony with nature.”

The €500,000 prize in the world’s largest sustainable entrepreneurship competition, the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, was awarded to Dutch startup PHYSEE last week for further development and marketing of the company’s PowerWindow. The PowerWindow is a fully transparent energy-generating glass – the coating collects light that would normally be reflected and the solar cells in the frame then convert it to electricity. PHYSEE claims its invention can supply half the energy for a renovated commercial building and up to 100 percent for a new building. The company also offers tinted panes for hot climates that can generate even more electricity and help cut cooling costs.

“We couldn't have imagined this in our wildest dreams to be proclaimed winner of this competition. The €500,000 prize money will give our start-up a tremendous boost,” said PHYSEE co-founder Willem Kesteloo. “The road leading from the lab to the market is a long one. Now we can expand our production capacity and acquire more knowledge for the purpose of making this a greener world.”

In dense cities, commercial building can account for a large portion of a city’s carbon emissions—and all of them need windows. The prize money is expected to help PHYSEE gain validation in the conservative market.

Just five of the 292 competition entrants made it to last week’s final in Amsterdam, where an international jury determined the winners. The runner-up prize of €200,000 was awarded to Germany-based Green City Solutions, which invented the CityTree to help cities meet pollution-reduction targets. Each CityTree unit takes one percent of the space and five percent of the costs of a real tree, but features moss cultures that can consume as much fine-dust air pollution as 275 trees. The remaining €100,000 prizes went to Ioniqa Technologies from the Netherlands, HomeBiogas from Israel, and from the United Kingdom (UK).

Meanwhile, Scottish startup MacRebur Roads is working on a version of the plastic roads idea, in which plastic waste is used to create more durable, weather-resistant roads.

MacRebur Founder Toby McCartney was inspired to consider waste as a resource during a visit to Mumbai, India, where he witnessed dozens of poor locals picking through discarded items in a landfill to make purses and wallets from cartons and air-conditioning units from plastic bottles. Upon returning to the UK, he recruited two of his friends, a water pipe expert and an employee of the local council, to come up with a solution to the potholes ‘plaguing’ their home county of Dumfriesshire.

“Originally, I thought dumping waste plastic into the holes would do the job,” McCartney told Real Leaders. “But I soon realized that the mix needed to be a little more complex than that.”

After some experimentation, McCartney discovered that molten recycled plastic could replace the bitumen used as the glue or binding agent that is mixed with aggregate particles to create about 70 percent of roads. Not only is the mix more environmentally friendly than bitumen, but it creates roads that are about 60 percent stronger—which therefore have less potholes. The solution resulted in MacRebur Roads’ win in the startup category of Sir Richard Branson’s new Voom business awards in London in June.

“If bitumen is your Pritt Stick type of glue that you’d use for school projects, then my molten plastic would be the equivalent of superglue,” McCartney explained. “We’re basically using rubbish to get a better road.”

Another advantage is that MacRebur Roads’ technique uses low-grade plastic that is unusable by consumer waste recyclers, not the plastic bottles and packaging that is commonly recycled. If it uses the company’s solution, the UK could cut back on the plastic waste that it sends to China for incineration and make progress towards its responsible disposal commitments.


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