He also introduced Hess to his former undergraduate student Melanie Binggeli. During her studies, she was active in the ETH Entrepreneur Club and other start-up networks. Binggeli wrote her Bachelor’s thesis on soy and her Master’s thesis on insects, so she already had some experience with alternative sources of protein. “The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that by 2050, we have to increase food production by 70 percent. To do that, we urgently need new approaches,” she says, continuing: “What really fascinates me about research is putting new knowledge into practice, so we can do something positive for people and for the environment.”
One key part of the progression from the initial idea to the first product samples was the Student Project House at ETH Zurich. It was here that Binggeli and Hess developed the first prototypes for their system. What started out as a plastic crate and an aquarium water pump has transformed into a sophisticated wooden basin with specific current properties for optimum
growth. They also had a mentor who not only helped them to build up a network, but she also provided encouragement in difficult patches and stressed how important it is to test out ideas at an early stage.
However, there are still several challenges the start-up must overcome before consumers can find
on the supermarket shelves. For one thing, the production process in the environmental chamber is complicated. It needs to be optimised to prevent other organisms spreading and posing a threat to the duckweed or people. “Plant disease is responsible for the failure of most previous ventures that have attempted to cultivate duckweed,” Hess says. He goes on to explain: “The larger the volume, the more difficult it is to keep production costs as low as possible while maintaining hygienic conditions.”
Establishing a market
Another challenge is of a legal nature: Hess and Binggeli must request approval from the European Union for a novel food before
can be sold as a foodstuff in the first place. This approval process requires dozens of analyses, and Hess estimates that the EU dossier will cost half a million Swiss francs. “After obtaining approval, we then need to set up the entire value chain and a market for our product,” he explains. Consumers first have to get to know
– for example, it is splendidly suited for smoothies or as a salad.
In September 2019, ETH Zurich awarded Hess and Binggeli Pioneer Fellowships. This pays them a salary, provides them access to laboratories and office space, and ultimately gives them a year to work on their idea without financial stress. A harvest from the environmental chamber in the basement of the Department of Environmental Systems Science will be sent out for testing to an investor in the food industry soon – one who seemingly can’t wait to try this “green caviar”.