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Singularity University’s Global Impact Challenge (GIC) Southern Africa edition, a competition that encourages innovators, scientists and entrepreneurs from the continent to formulate solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems, is nearing its final phase.
Final pitches addressing the GIC judges will take place on Wednesday 10 May, and will see five individuals and teams punting their change-making, climate change-beating technologies, innovations and developments.
But who are these five finalists? And what makes them, and their innovations, stand out?
We take a look at these possible GIC Southern Africa winners in more detail below.
Jonathan Lun: mining asteroids for asteroid-sourced rocket fuel
Not many people get to call themselves rocket scientists, but Jonathan Lun might have more claim to this title than many.
Initially studying mechanical engineering at Wits University, Lun’s interest in space technology grew alongside his experience.
“In 2011, together with staff at the Wits schools of Physics and Engineering, I co-founded the first and only dedicated plasma propulsion research facility in South Africa,” he tells Memeburn.
“In 2013, I was recognised by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) as an Emerging Space Leader.”
‘My idea is to use an innovative rocket technology that consumes asteroid metal as fuel to achieve industrial-scale transport of mined asteroid material’
After he completed his PhD, he returned to Stellenbosch and became Denel Spaceteq’s senior mechanical engineer. There he helped “design Earth science and observation satellites for the South African government.”
It’s probably no surprise then that Lun’s GIC innovation uses rockets and space exploration.
“My idea is to use an innovative rocket technology that consumes asteroid metal as fuel to achieve industrial-scale transport of mined asteroid material,” he notes.
Citing the dwindling reserves for many earth metals that fuel human progression and technology, Lun believes that mining asteroids for their metals will alleviate humankind’s demand on the Earth and its limited mineral bounty.
A major part of that plan also involves asteroid-metal-fuelled rockets.
“I was able to demonstrate a small hand-sized propulsion system that could use a simple rod of iron as fuel to produce an efficient jet of thrust, comparable to the performance of more established satellite propulsion systems. There are still many more technical hurdles to overcome, but the basic technology was proven and showed great potential,” he explains.
“Building a propulsion system to move asteroids around in space is a pretty hard, but worthwhile goal. It’s going to take the best minds to make it work. Singularity University is the perfect place to share and refine this idea with like-minded people who pursue ambitious and grand efforts to build the future.”
Benji Coetzee: an ‘Uber for cargo’
Benji Coetzee (left) “was born with a hunger for entrepreneurship, an immense amount of good-luck”, she tells Memeburn.
Her company, known as EmptyTrips, is a novel attempt at addressing the issue of climate change by reducing wasteful journeys transportation trucks make on a daily basis.
“#EmptyTrips, Africa’s first trip exchange for cargo, uses algorithmic matching to reduce wasted space on vehicles for less. Filling spaces to places for less,” she explains in a tweet-friendly description, complete with hashtag.
But what does that entail?
“By opening the market across transport modes, we enable easier trade flows, lower delays, lower congestion, less costs and ideally less vehicles,” she answers.
“By reducing the number of empty legs by 10%, we expect to reduce carbon impact in SA by circa north of 150 000 tonnes of carbon per annum. We are Africa’s first smart trips exchange, we want to open Africa whilst doing it in an optimal way with a notion of ‘first do no harm’ approach.”
‘#EmptyTrips, Africa’s first trip exchange for cargo uses algorithmic matching to reduce wasted space on vehicles for less’
As simple as that seems, Coetzee notes that the business’s conception wasn’t as simple as a turn of an 18-wheeler’s ignition key.
“The business model was key,” she elaborates, suggesting that an asset-less and tech-enabled model was ideal for the concept. From there, infrastructure, database and “testing, upgrading, testing, selling, persuading clients” came soon afterward.
As for her reasons for entering the Global Impact Challenge, she believes it is a way to “leapfrog educating the market” of the solution.
“A disruptive and new model into a traditional large industry requires patience, commitment and communication. Not only will the experience, education and network be invaluable to strengthen our team, but the ability to share with like-minded forward-looking individuals our vision and ambition to create meaningful change. I want people to hear our voices and to recognise,” she concludes.
Michael Schmid: powering batteries using stored solar energy
Michael Schmid’s innovation is quite literally gazing towards the African sun, in an attempt to store its energy.
Beginning his entrepreneurial life as a mechanical engineer and material scientist, Schmid has more recently co-founded battery startup VOLTA.
VOLTA, or Very large Offgrid eLectriciTy for Africa, “relies on solar energy as a renewable energy source, as Southern Africa is blessed with one of the highest average hours of sunshine per day in the world,” he tells Memeburn.
But it’s not the idea of storing solar energy that’s new as so much the technology that powers the idea.
In this case, Schmid talks budget batteries.
“The key aspect of project VOLTA is therefore to develop cheap off-grid solar energy by bringing down the cost of batteries by a factor of 10. This is being achieved by focusing on cheap materials (at the expense of energy density) specifically for stationary energy storage,” he clarifies.
These cheap materials, Schmid explains, will further drop the price of energy storage, bridge the poor-rich divide, and subsequently allow more people to access technologies others in more fortunate areas of the world take for granted.
‘The key aspect of project VOLTA is therefore to develop cheap off-grid solar energy by bringing down the cost of batteries by a factor of 10’
Focusing on energy storage might not seem like it’s directly addressing the climate change problem, but Schmid notes his innovation could change the lives of many across the world, and Africa.
“There are a staggering 1.2-billion people in the world without access to electricity, and over 600 million in Africa alone. These 1.2 billion people can read books by firelight at night, but to get the fuel for the fire they must spend hours gathering wood which means they can’t spend time doing productive work or going to school,” he notes.
“I want to change this.”
Feedback and “building interest in battery innovation” are two primary drivers for entering the Global Impact Challenge, he tells us.
“While large corporations are focused on rare battery chemistries, there is a massive range of materials which can be investigated, and anyone with the interest and passion can conduct this research. You can build your own battery monitoring station and test batteries made with widely available materials,” he notes.
“The only limit is creativity.”
Brett Jordaan: turning plastic waste into sustainable, clean biofuel
You may think that dealing with human beings’ uncontrollable plastic waste is an unsexy way of addressing a trending topic like climate change, but Brett Jordaan thinks the opposite.
His company, Evolution Africa, aims to “scale up, rapidly commercialise and internationally deploy a novel waste-plastic-to-energy technology developed in South Africa.”
That’s not a simple feat either.
“The main challenges towards greater beneficiation of plastics are: poor commercial drivers for recycling; inefficient and outdated technology and lack of widespread and easy access to recycling infrastructure,” he tells Memeburn.
“Since 2015 I have been working with a client (Earthwize Energy) who has developed a proven novel technology that turns non-recyclable and soiled waste-plastic into high-grade, clean heating oil.”
Evolution Africa aims to ‘deploy a novel waste-plastic-to-energy technology developed in South Africa’
“This fuel is cleaner than biofuel and created in high quantities through a unique, phased approach to vacuum pyrolysis.”
Thanks to this, Jordaan suggests that Evolution Africa’s solution will see possible carbon dioxide emissions drop by around 160kg per tonne of plastic produced. But it’s not just cleaner, it’s sustainable too.
“Due to the high yield and efficiency of the plant, it is possible to pay for the waste plastic and still generate very healthy financial returns, thus providing economic as well as environmental sustainability,” he adds.
Jordaan notes that this innovation has more personal motives too, beyond cash.
“I’ve always been concerned about the state of the environment and the rate at which we are destroying it. This has become much more pertinent since having children, as I do not want my legacy to them to be a ruined ecosystem,” he explains.
“I want to make a positive impact on a grand scale,” he notes, suggesting that entering the Global Impact Challenge gives him the chance to do just that.
“I am an avid surfer and environmentalist and I want my children to inherit a better, not worse world than I inhabit.”
Spencer Horne: zero emission solar-powered airships
Reducing the impact transportation has on the environment is an ongoing issue in the fight against climate change, so it’s not unusual to see two novel innovations focusing on this sector. But were you expecting to see airships?
That’s the cornerstone of Spencer Horne’s innovation.
His company, dubbed Cargonought, aims to bring “zero emissions, zero incremental cost, zero infrastructure – solar powered airships” to the mass market to “transform global logisitics”.
“Lift is free,” Horne adds, explaining that airships are “the only suitable form of transport for solar power”.
“Since we abandoned [airship] development before electronics, modern materials, even compression technologies, there are immense opportunities for creating 21st century modern freight carriers.”
Horne, who grew up in Cape Town alongside a single mother and extended family, studied engineering at the Cape Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology, Johannesburg’s African Leadership Academy, and eventually at Harvard University in the USA.
During this period, Horne further honed his focus on crafting his own business.
“Entrepreneurship as a path was entertained throughout my life, but came with certainty at college, where I gained my first work experience and had a glimpse of the potential career paths I could follow. I knew for certain I had to attempt my own thing,” he tells Memeburn.
But back to airships.
Cargonought “is still squarely in the ideation phase” but he has big plans nonetheless.
“By starting with a user focus — we aim to design to value and solution with an existing market fit. That’s meant travelling around East Africa, meeting with stakeholders in large humanitarian organisations and now seeking out technology partners towards building a prototype,” he notes.
As for entering Singularity U’s Global Impact Challenge, Horne explains that his desire to “address the big impactful challenges humanity faces” excited him.
“It is aligned in terms of the ambition of our project and the scale of impact. My hope is that through the programme, the idea can gain traction for funding and legitimacy in the market,” he concludes.
Final pitches take place on Wednesday 10 May in Johannesburg.
Memeburn is SingularityU Cape Town and Johannesburg Chapters’ official media partner.