Students from the University of Waterloo and four other Ontario institutions can vie for cash prizes and the chance to establish a startup by licensing a novel technology.

The Proteus Innovation Competition is a four-month competition that challenges students to craft compelling commercialization strategies for one out of five promising technologies with the chance to win a slice of more than $25,000 in cash prizes and the opportunity to license the technology and form their own startup.

The virtual competition kicked off on November 15. The competition enables contestants to refine their entrepreneurial skills, collaborate with a panel of seasoned advisors and usher discoveries from Ontario's research institutions to market.

The five technologies were sourced from the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, Western University, McMaster University and the University of Windsor — representing a diverse array of potential opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Waterloo has offered up a breakthrough technology combatting the global issue of food waste, which currently claims a staggering 17 per cent of total food production. The root of this waste problem lies with the limited shelf life of food products and the reliance on preservatives. These preservatives, while extending the lifespan of food, do not eliminate bacteria. Once bacterial growth is detected, it's often too late, resulting in the disposal of entire food products. Preservatives can also carry unwanted side effects.

Emmanuel HoEmmanuel Ho, a professor from the University of Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy, has developed a smart bacteria-responsive platform that releases antimicrobial agents in the presence of specific bacteria.

“Reducing food waste not only cuts greenhouse gas emissions, slows the destruction of nature through land conversion and mitigates pollution, but also enhances food availability, thereby contributing to hunger reduction and cost savings,” Ho says. “The current demand for sustainability underscores the urgency of addressing this issue. The primary challenge lies in the short shelf life of food products which is what we are wanting to address.”

These harmful bacteria, responsible for foodborne illnesses, produce a group of virulent factors known as cholesterol-dependent cytolysins (CDCs). Using nanotechnology, the platform creates a liposome-based formulation that provides sustained drug release over a five-day period only when specific bacteria producing CDCs are present. No drug is released in their absence, making this a first-of-its-kind bacteria-responsive technology.

This innovation boasts several advantages. It offers a remarkably high level of specificity, releasing drugs exclusively in the presence of CDC-producing bacteria. This has the potential to extend the shelf life of food products — reducing the need for food preservatives with potential side effects. Moreover, it promises to eliminate the bacteria responsible for food spoilage when they are present, reducing exposure to unwanted chemicals while preserving the quality of food products.

The technology's applications extend beyond food packaging, with potential uses in surface coatings for high-contact areas like countertops, hospital curtains and even medical equipment. In a world grappling with food waste and antibiotic resistance, this bacteria-responsive platform holds immense promise.

Students need to develop an abstract establishing who their team is and explain their understanding of their selected technology. They then must develop a business plan explaining how to get the technology to market. Finally, they will pitch to a panel of judges who will grade them on presentation and the viability of their plan.

The teams will have four months to develop their commercialization plan and perfect their pitch. During that time, they will have access to a variety of workshops, mentors and advisors to help them. Winners will present their pitch to a panel of distinguished judges and the winners will be announced in spring 2024.