Over two days the halls of Parsons School of Design and the Museum of Modern Art teemed with groups of college students rehearsing presentations and discussing projects they had spent months perfecting for Biodesign Challenge, a program that partners university and high school students with artists, designers, and biologists to reimagine biotechnology. They nervously waited as judges’ deliberations went into overtime.
Most of these students aren’t studying science but have created biologically optimized versions of textiles, manufactured goods and futuristic prototypes of commonplace objects to solve global problems.
“We took a protein from a snow-making company and modified it,” Paola Camacho, a design student on the grand-prize-winning team from Universidad de Los Andes, told Forbes. “We did research and found that by modifying the protein it would be possible to create ice at high at higher temperatures.”
Their project, PseudoFreeze, is a refrigeration system that harnesses energy from proteins from Pseudomonas syringae, a bacteria that infects many species of plants. “It’s a refrigeration system that can be implemented in many contexts,” Camacho said. “It also reduces the consumption of electricity, its first application is in transporting vaccines.”
Although water freezes at 0º Celsius (32º Fahrenheit), the team was able to freeze water at 4º Celsius (39º Fahrenheit) and is working on freezing at even higher temperatures. In a warming world, this could make a huge difference. Their system also requires no batteries or outside power source, a boon for transporting heat-sensitive items in remote areas or those offline from an electrical grid. The team spent eight months creating their project for the competition and hopes to expand the project at the enterprise level and introduce new use cases.
Biodesign, which operates under 501(3)(c) status, provides no monetary prize for winners. Grants and sponsorships fund operational cost and putting on the competition, which cost around $500,000 this year.
Daniel Grushkin, a former biotechnology reporter, fouded Biodesign in 2016 to promote and increase access to biotechnology among students.
“It’s an education program in the guise of a competition,” Grushkin, who is also cofounder of GenSpace, a nonprofit community biology lab, told Forbes. As a field, biodesign applies the rules governing naturally efficient systems to manufacturing and industry.
Day one of the competition kicked off with a showcase of sustainable solutions that aimed to stem the corrosive effects of traditional manufacturing. At the end of the semester, the team of artists, biologists and experts pick a team to advance to the Biodesign summit. Here students are judged based on the concept, presentation, and the cultural and environmental context of their design. Thirty-six university teams from nine countries presented projects, many of which zeroed in on the fashion industry (building a better pair of jeans was a popular target).
University of Pennsylvania students showed off denim they created with diseased corn husks, millions of pounds of which are discarded each year. Another team from Universidad de Los Andes created an anthocyanin compound that can dye jeans. The idea to isolate the anthocyanin was inspired by their local environment. The students noticed swallows feces turn blue from the bird’s diet of elderberries. The dye derived from berries in place of traditional chemicals could save rivers from harmful runoff.
“We’re building the first generation of biodesigners and helping them grow,” Grushkin said. “Students, when they graduate from our program and enter into the marketplace, end up at the Ralph Laurens, Calvin Keins, and transform what those companies do from the inside.”
Some even take the startup route.
Winners from the Royal College of Art in London founded an agtech company, Olombria, in 2017, which creates devices that emit pollinating flies pheromones to control crop pollination. This increases crop yields and supplements bee pollination. The company completed an undisclosed seed funding round in 2017. Fashion Institute of Technology graduates and winners of the 2016 competition founded AlgiKnit, which produces fabric from algae. Last year the company secured $2.2 million in seed funding led by Horizon Ventures.
Of the 36 teams that presented, nine took home prizes. Fashion Institute of Technology’s team, Fauna Fur, won the Stella McCartney Award for Sustainable Fashion for a biodegradable fur alternative made from milkweed and flax linen.
The Orta Prize for Bio-Inspired Textile Process went to RMIT University’s Enzer, a microplastic water filtration and treatment system that can be retrofitted to washing machines. A crowd favorite, GiY Bio Buddies, a kit for children that allows them to create toys from biomaterials, took home three prizes for outstanding instructor and field research, and was a runner up for the grand prize. The project was created by Biodesign’s first high school team to compete.
“There’s a huge difference between young and old people’s appetite for change in the world, improving the world, for taking risks,” said Antonio Regalado, a senior editor at MIT Technology Review who served as a judge, told Forbes. “Does that mean young people should have more power? I don’t know, but that’s the question of today.”
This year’s competition had 50 judges from MIT, Harvard and Cornell, and featured leading biotech companies and innovators including Natsai Audrey Chieza, founder of Faber Futures, a biodesign lab, and former designer in residence of Ginkgo Bioworks.
“I’m looking for projects that have developed a real sensitivity about the place and the people, and the consequence of what they’re building,” Chieza told Forbes.
Although students aren’t rewarded monetarily, teams that express an interest in advancing their projects have Biodesign’s support. Venture capital sponsors this year include Stray Dog Capital, investing in tools that present alternatives to animals being in the supply chain, and the investment arm of XRC Labs, an accelerator for startups innovating consumer goods.
Chieza says the competition creates an opportunity for people who use biodesign principles to come together and learn from one another’s working conditions around the world.
“It’s an incredibly encouraging thing for people who have, more than likely—because this is a very early field—not been well-supported, to be able to turn this work into something more than a student project,” she said.