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Phyta to compete in Melbourne for Hult Prize

March 6, 2018 • Erin Reitz • No Comments

Editor’s Note: Congratulations to Phyta! The team has won the Hult Prize Melbourne Regional Final.

Phyta, a current CUBE venture powered by Eliza Harrison (’19), Lucy Best (’19), and Emily Kian (’20), is making waves at startup competitions across the globe. This weekend the team will compete in Melbourne, Australia to become one of fifteen Hult Prize finalists that will take part in a business accelerator program before vying for the 1 million dollar grand prize. Over 100,000 students from 120 countries applied to participate in a Hult Prize regional final and only 3,000 remain. Phyta will present about its temperate water macroalgae project in response to this year’s Hult Prize theme, “Harnessing the Power of Energy.”

Macroalgae, also known as seaweed, are plant-like organisms that grow in coastal regions by fastening to hard surfaces, like rocks, or by floating along the ocean’s surface. While vacationers may squirm at the slimy feeling of algae between their toes during a dip in the ocean, the plant has become increasingly celebrated by scientific communities for its environmental and nutritional benefits. Macroalgae is a powerful purifier; through photosynthesis, it removes toxic elements present in ocean water from damaging practices like agricultural and industrial dumping. The nutrient-dense plant also packs a punch of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and antioxidants when eaten.

With such powerful potential, it’s a wonder why more efforts haven’t been made to grow macroalgae everywhere; currently, macroalgae farming practices are limited to cold water climates. That’s where Phyta comes in.

This spring, Harrison, Best, and Kian are testing macroalgae growth in temperate water at the UNC Gillings School of Public Health. If all goes according to plan, they will take what they’ve learned and construct a rig – a system of buoys, ropes, and lines from which macroalgae can grow – on the coast of North Carolina. Next fall they will monitor the rig’s macroalgae cultivation and its surrounding marine environment before completing their first harvest in May 2019.

Harrison believes the discoveries they make during this pilot phase have the potential for long-lasting impacts. “If we can successfully develop a model for cultivation, it can be used in any other area with temperate water around the world,” Harrison said. “North Carolina is just a starting point. We hope to eventually offer a model for sustainable ocean farming and marine conservation to a much larger subset of the population.”

Harrison, Best, and Kian did not begin their collaboration with such a monumental goal in mind. The three met through the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program and saw potential in having access to UNC and Duke resources to research macroalgae. However, after they submitted a video about their temperate water macroalgae concept to National Geographic’s CHASING GENIUS competition and received third place in the “Peoples’ Choice” category, the team felt encouraged to formulate a plan of action.

A screenshot from Phyta’s CHASING GENIUS video

This momentum has continued as they’ve placed third in the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s “Carolina Challenge,” second in the UNC Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship’s “Heel Tank” challenge, and as a finalist in the UNC ACC Inventure Prize competition. Their acceptance into the Campus Y’s CUBE social innovation incubator has further allowed them to build their ideas into a multidimensional business model.

“The three of us have no prior experience in entrepreneurship so we’re so glad to be a part of the CUBE,” Kian said. “Before joining we didn’t have a business model, a value proposition or a mission statement. Laura [Fieselman, the CUBE’s program director] really got us researching and thinking about everything that is possible once we start to grow algae.”

Since its inception Phyta has focused primarily on growing algae for marine preservation. Their ideas for the resulting harvest have evolved over time. Originally, they planned to sell the algae for human consumption, but they’ve since decided to enter into the animal feed market instead. When animals consume algae, they ingest more protein and nutrients compared to the additive-ridden corn and soy feeds on the market today. Consumers who eat meat or dairy from those animals consequently benefit as well. Moreover, research shows that when fed macroalgae, cows produce up to 99% less methane than cows without algae in their diets. This is a powerful statistic as greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture continue to rise at an alarming rate.

Phyta hopes its initiative’s widespread impact will excite audience members in Melbourne, a city that sits on the coast of a temperate bay. “There are so many reasons to be passionate about this,” said Best. “Whether you’re interested in social issues, global-political issues or environmental issues, there’s a reason to care about macroalgae and the alternative farming methods we’re exploring.”

Heading into competition season, Phyta feels energized and grateful for the campus entrepreneurial community’s support. Innovate Carolina’s Dreamers-Who-Do fund is sponsoring the upcoming trips to compete for the Hult Prize this weekend and for the ACC Inventure Prize in April. The teammates also expressed their appreciation for the encouragement they’ve received from their peers.

“It gives us hope to know we’re not alone. Our generation is so passionate about these issues,” Best said. She smiled as she described a recent presentation they gave to their CUBE class that ended with enthusiastic applause. “Our classmates came up to us afterwards and said, ‘This is it. You guys are going to change the world.’ It was neat to get that reaction.”

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