A team of student entrepreneurs who see algae as a potential business solution for reducing methane emissions from landfill and waste-water sites won the 2023 Cambridge Zero Climate Challenge after a nail-biting competition. 

The climate challenge was one of the most exciting and well-organised events I got to attend during my four years at Cambridge

Tristan Spreng

Team AlgaeSorb’s winning pitch persuaded a panel of innovation experts to award them the top prize of £1500 for an idea, which judge Dr Nicky Dee, Founder of climate-focused venture capital group Carbon13, described as “elegant”. 

“The Climate Challenge was an incredible opportunity to not only meet like-minded students, but learn invaluable skills on crafting and designing impact-driven projects,” said Team AlgaeSorb’s Anish Chaluvadi, a Gates-Cambridge Scholar and Nanoscience and Nanotechnology PhD student at King’s College. 

The team also includes Nanoscience and Nanotechnology PhD student Timothy Lambden (Girton College) and Tristan Spreng, a Natural Sciences Masters’ student (Trinity College) and President of the Cambridge University Energy Technology Society. 

“The Climate Challenge was one of the most exciting and well-organised events I got to attend during my four years at Cambridge," Spreng said. "From the breadth of speakers at the seminar sessions to exchanging ideas with other participants during the launch and final events, it was a truly amazing experience.” 

Eight teams gathered in the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s (CISL) newly retro-fitted Entopia building to pitch ideas ranging from using machine learning to create algorithms for flood risk to crunching satellite data for locating wall-mounted solar panels. 

The judging panel also included serial entrepreneur Simon Hombersley, Professor Jaideep Prabhu, the Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Indian Business and Enterprise at the Cambridge Judge Business School, Lindsay Hooper, Executive Director of CISL and Chris Gibbs from the University’s technology transfer unit Cambridge Enterprise.  

Dr Dee said AlgaeSorb was a brilliant entry by a mixed team, which drew on different country experiences and expertise across chemistry, physics and materials sciences. 

“As a result they developed an elegant solution to tackle methane in the Global South where other landfill solutions are not available and in a way that supports the local communities,” she said. 

In between pitches, experts such as Professor Prabhu and Cambridge Zero Director Professor Emily Shuckburgh offered insights on sustainable innovation and its importance in the race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Dr Amy Munro-Faure, Cambridge Zero’s Head of Education and Student Engagement led a quick game that mixed teams for spontaneous pitches, which resulted in a wild melange of ideas that included saving dolphins and travelling through time. 

The eight-week Climate Challenge programme is run in partnership with CISL Canopy, Carbon13, Energy IRC, Cambridge Enterprise, the Maxwell Centre and sponsored by Moda Living. Competing teams undertake training and develop early-stage proposals for solutions to tackle climate challenges in innovative ways.  

Each year there is a new theme. This year’s theme, “A Just Transition”, asked teams to consider the social impacts of their climate solutions.  

Two runner-up teams were awarded a prize of £750. FireSight, formed of Jovana Knezevic and Onkar Gulati, pitched a risk assessment and consulting service to address global wildfires using remote sensing and machine learning. Carolina Pulignani and Shannon A. Bonke of Wastevalor fascinated the judges with their technology that converts waste into methanol.  

Team Reckon, made up of Aparna Holenarasipura Sreedhara and Akanksha Sahay, won the Audience Choice Award for their software as a service platform entry. The software gives organisations the ability to measure the social impact of their climate transition plans.

Judges said the Climate Challenge was a powerful demonstration of how innovation and the determination to tackle climate change permeate every level of the Cambridge University community.  

“Helping build the entrepreneurial mindset in the University ecosystem is critical to the innovation agenda and particularly crucial for a true net zero where over half the innovations needed for 2050 are still in the lab,” Gibbs said.

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