Bright SCIdea final 2024: from deep underground to the stars!

Photography by Andrew Lunn

21 March 2024 | Simon Frost

The Bright SCIdea Challenge returned for its sixth instalment on 19 March 2024.

Jump to a team's pitch:


This year’s Bright SCIdea Challenge final saw five teams pitch five very different science-based business ideas to a panel of expert judges – with applications everywhere from deep into the London Underground, through the soil we depend upon, and way up into orbit.

After months of preparation to develop their pitches, the teams sat down for a training session to take on some final advice and inspiration from Beena Sharma, CEO of CCU International; Ellen Roshier, a member of last year’s winning team, Phagel; and Victor Christou, one of our expert judges and a managing partner at Hotdog Capital.

Rather than in-depth training (the pitches were only a refreshment break away, after all), this final pre-pitch session was designed to inspire the teams to bring their A-game.

Beena Sharma stressed that personal skills are key to success as an entrepreneur. Paraphrasing some advice she received from an investor early in her career, she said; ‘You can have the best idea in the world, but if you don't have the right people behind it, it will fail. Guaranteed. Alternatively, you can have the worst idea in the world, but the best people behind it – and eventually, that team is going to make something work. [...] We invest in people, not in ideas.’

Beena Sharma

Beena highlighted the importance of speaking to people, networking, seeking advice and learning from failure – something that all successful entrepreneurs experience. She also advised that each team member’s strengths should inform their role in the business. ‘When a question is asked,’ she said, ‘you should automatically know who is going to answer that question’.

Ellen Roshier, a member of last year’s winning team, encouraged the teams sitting where she was a year before to make the most of the day. ‘There's not very many opportunities where you have so many different people from different industries, all in one place, interested in you and your idea,’ she said.

Ellen Roshier

Ellen advised teams to use the pitching and networking opportunities as a sounding board to test and develop their ideas and how to communicate them. ‘Note what people are picking up on about your idea and your pitch. Because you have your perspective, as scientists, but you don't know what other people with different agendas are taking away from your idea. You can learn what you're communicating well, and from the questions what you're not communicating so well, or what concerns or gaps people have. It's just a really good way of subtly progressing how you're putting your idea out to the world.’

Finally, head judge Victor Christou reminded the teams that nerves are natural, normal, and can even be beneficial. Victor encouraged the teams to channel that nervous energy to deliver their story, likening it to the focus of a football player stepping up to take a penalty. ‘When you have lots of adrenaline, you bring your A-game – and it’s something that you need to do in short bursts, because you can't be on your A-game the whole time. So, use your nerves to focus that adrenaline to bring your A-game.’

Victor Christou

‘You're all going to do brilliantly– and we're all very friendly! We're all very aware of the fact that for many people here, it's probably the first time you’re pitching quite a technical idea to a technical group of people who are going to ask you questions – that's you guys putting the ball on the spot and stepping up to take a penalty. So, just focus on your story to tell, because we all want to hear your story.’

And so, as an inspiring session concluded, it was time for a final break before the pitching began, and the excitement in the room was palpable. As one team member said during the break, ‘I’ve taken every entrepreneurship class and pitch training opportunity I can through my university and outside and, honestly, I think that session was better than any of them!’

The pitches




First to face the judges was Munnch, a team of three PhD students at the University of Leeds who have formed a biodegradable materials company ‘hoping to take a bite out of plastic pollution’.

Their product is a biopolymer compostable composite material that combines the protective capabilities of polystyrene with compostable biopolymer technologies using a composite structure.

‘Littering is a huge contributor to global plastic pollution, but alternatives don't match its performance,’ said team member James King. ‘Our initial product is a compostable insulated fish box set to disrupt the global seafood distribution industry,’ added Ben Coyne.

Team Munnch pitching at Bright SCIdea final 2024

Megan Holdstock noted that ‘The European expanded polystyrene market is forecasted to reach £2.1 billion by 2029. Replacing just 1% of this market will translate to a potential revenue stream of £21 million.’

When questioned by Victor on the economics of fish box manufacturing, Megan conceded that the cost of their product is currently slightly more expensive than the standard polystyrene, but that Extended Producer Responsibility schemes being set up in the UK and Europe could offset this cost.

‘From 2025 onwards, there's going to be fees put on different packaging materials. So, a material that is recyclable will have a much lower fee compared to something that is non recyclable, such as polystyrene. We're hoping in the future that this slight kind of difference in profitability will increase in our favour,’ she said.



Breathprint Analytics

Breathprint Analytics

Next, it was the turn of Breathprint Analytics, three PhD students based at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Nottingham. They presented a rapid, non-invasive diagnostic device for detecting bacterial infections from the breath of a patient, using a functionalised gold nanoparticle film.

‘An individual who has an infection will have a distinct volatile organic compound profile known as a “breathprint”’, said Dan Yanes. When a patient breathes onto the device, VOCs bind to the nanoparticle substrate, creating a profile of the makeup of VOCs in the patient’s breath, from which diagnoses can be made.

Team Breathprint pitching at Bright SCIdea final 2024

Specific benefits of the product, the team said, include the non-invasiveness of the procedure and the reusability of the product. As Stefana Duca explained, the team has high hopes for its profitability, too. ‘Our analyses suggest a manufacturing cost of approximately £75 per unit, while its market price is anticipated to be £1,000 – this forecast indicates a positive net profit trajectory in five years of market entry, with projections expected to exceed £8 million by the fifth year,’ she said.

Judge Jonathan Hague, from Unilever, asked the team about the rate of false positives and false negatives, which the team conceded they did not yet know conclusively, but laid out a clear process they have planned to test the accuracy of the device to this end.




Next up it was Veocene – a collaboration between University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University students.

Joseph Parkin presented the team’s pitch, where he described the dangers of poor air quality in underground rail settings, and his team’s solution of activated carbon filters which they claim can remove 36.6% of VOCs and particulate matter from the air.

Team Veocene pitching at Bright SCIdea final 2024

Their two filtration devices would be places at the top of underground tunnel archways and along tunnel walls to ‘efficiently capture VOCs produced from diesel engines, paint, electrical motors, and wheel, track and brake abrasion’.

Asked what the value proposition would be for the rail networks that would be the customer, Jack Bellis responded:

‘The initial reason to invest in a company like this is to be able to say “this is what we're doing”. And then after that, the pressure becomes on the other companies to try and catch up. If people know that your rail line isn't using this kind of technology, which is saving lives and preventing the risk of their children from getting diseases – that's the question people are going to be asking. So, it puts pressure on these companies.’


Stars Edge

Stars Edge team photo

Dressed to impress in braces and bowties, Stars Edge, three engineering PhD students from Cranfield University, took to the floor next, and it wasn’t a case of style over substance.

Their pitch was for a plasma propulsion system to improve the sustainability of satellites – which Sara Alão noted was a booming area of industry, with 36,000 satellites predicted to be in orbit by 2030.

Team Stars Edge pitching at Bright SCIdea final 2024

Combining the expertise of a plasma chemist, an aerospace engineer and aerospace materials engineer, they have developed a propulsion system which they say includes no moving parts and can be easily retrofitted to existing technology.

Judge Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne (Genius Foods, Scotland Food and Drink) asked simply why these propellants are not already being widely used. Sara responded that, although in fact plasma propellants are used for applications for higher manoeuvres, the physical and chemical reaction that they have developed for nearer-orbit applications is novel. ‘That’s the reason why it hasn’t been used yet – it hasn’t been discovered yet!’, Sara said.




Finally, it was the turn of AGregen, from the University of Birmingham, who presented a non-ammonia-based fertiliser – a polymer designed to degrade precisely into the nutrients required for the soil at a slow and controlled rate.

‘Ultimately, we want farmers to be less reliant on fertilisers and only feed the soil what it needs and nothing more,’ said Louisa Brenninkmeijer. ‘With our products, farmers are insured with healthier crops, nutrients as well as a healthier soil. With very importantly, no pollutants left in the soil after use. We see a gap in the market for this because we believe that farmers will actually be incentivised to use sustainable alternatives through government sustainability schemes – as dead soil costs the government a lot of money.’

Asked how the production of the polymer fits in with the sustainability of the product and existing polymer manufacture, Susanna Harvey responded, ‘It would be a synthetic polymer made with bio-based monomers, and making sure it's fully degradable will be done through the first year of testing.’

Team AGregen pitching at Bright SCIdea final 2024

Judge Robin Harrison, from SCIdea platinum sponsor Synthomer, asked the team how they would navigate such a ‘notoriously legislated’ industry. ‘Do you know what the regulations are that you need to comply to? And then how can you ultimately use that regulation to a benefit? Because what you want is to incentivise farmers ultimately to move to this through regulation.’

The team noted that they will be conducting in vivo and in vitro tests to ensure the safety of their products. ‘With regard to actual schemes for the uptake of our product, there is actually a very large scheme from the government that will pay, essentially for farmers to make their farms more sustainable. So we believe that this will [...] really benefit the small farm more intensively than for example, a large farm,’ Louisa responded.

‘With this being high on the government agenda around sustainable food – and especially removing reliance on imports – there's scope there to perhaps work with policymakers on how we can move and work around that,’ added Alastair Littlewood.

And the winners are...

And with that, the pitches were over, the judges went away to deliberate, while the teams took a well deserved break.

Before announcing the winners of Bright SCIdea, Synthomer’s Ana Perroni Laloe revealed the winners and runners-up of the poster competition – the second runner-up was Spoilguard, a team from the University of New South Wales, Australia whose app allows consumers to scan food items with their phone to receive instant updates on their safety status.

The first runner up was Synthlab, from the University of Oxford, who have developed a method to predict the success of a chemical reaction based on a database of automated experiments.

Poster competition runners-up Synthlab

And the winner of the poster competition was Freya, a team from UCL presenting an innovative platform offering holistic support to expectant parents navigating pregnancy and early parenthood.

Poster competition winners Freya

With that, it was time to announce the runners up and winner of Bright SCIdea 2024. In third place, it was Stars Edge. The judges were ‘particularly impressed with the great ambition and raising awareness of the global warming impact, and with a extremely knowledgeable team in the in the area, as well as the great team dynamic. We truly believe that they have a great potential to achieve higher in the space.’

Bright SCIdea 2024 second runner-up Stars Edge

In second place, Breathprint Analytics particularly impressed the judges with their value proposition, their team dynamic and the cost potential benefits and cost savings for public health services, while their 3d-printed prototype made the concept tangible.

Bright SCIdea 2024 first runner-up Breathprint

And the winner of Bright SCIdea 2024, owing to their well-rounded pitch, their clear and concise answers to all of the judges’ questions and the potential value of their idea in use, paired with its excellent sustainability impact – it’s AGregen!

Bright SCIdea 2024 winning team AGregen

‘It’s been a real vote of confidence in our idea,’ said Louisa. ‘Talking to experts about it has really helped us to see some of the holes we need to fill, too.’

Alastair noted ‘All of the webinars, videos and sessions that have been put on by SCI on how to hone our pitch, make our idea marketable – they’re just really useful skills that we didn’t have before.’

‘Knowing that the judges believed in the pitch and the product is a real confidence booster,’ said Susanna.

Bright SCIdea 2024

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