Published June 14, 2019
“We started off with just an idea. We didn’t have a product, and we didn’t even know if this was possible to finish.” So says Anish Ajay Kirtane, a graduate student in the Department of Civil Structural and Environmental Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Nine months later, Kirtane and his teammates — Abdulrahman Hassaballah, a fellow graduate student in the Department of Civil Structural and Environmental Engineering, and business administration senior Olivia Burgner — have a product, have raised over $10,000 and finished in third place at the World’s Challenge Challenge (WCC) Global Final at Western University, in London, Ontario, Canada.
Last week’s WCC Global Final welcomed over 30 student teams from colleges and universities around the world to compete and present their unique ideas addressing different global issues. Burgner, Hassaballah and Kirtane earned the bronze medal at the WCC Global Final for Numu, their sustainable beef alternative addressing three of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“It’s over 60 students from every corner of the world that are wanting to save [the planet] and make it a better place. All the ideas were different,” says Hassaballah. “We all have a problem we’re passionate about and we have different perspectives on how to change and save the world.”
In addition to the competitors, the general acceptance and audience reaction to Numu was different compared to other competitions, according to Burgner.
“In previous pitches, if there were three judges, we would bring six burgers and the judges would tell us, ‘We’re not going to try it unless you eat it,’” Burgner says. “This time, all three judges just sort of picked it up and ate the burgers in the middle of our pitch.”
It was the first time the team “mass-produced” its burgers. Numu prepared 60 samples using its mealworm recipe in Western University’s kitchen prior to the presentation. The team offered its burgers to audience members during a lunch break and the samples went quickly. “That felt like a win,” Burgner says. “Everyone ate all of our burgers. There were some people who didn’t get to try samples who really wanted them.”
When Burgner, Hassaballah and Kirtane initially created Numu, there was a fair amount of skepticism. “I remember pitching this idea without having won anything, without having validation, and people would just laugh and say ‘yeah, sure,’” Kirtane says.
Burgner experienced the change in people’s perceptions firsthand when she told some of her other friends about Numu. “At first, I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing on the weekend, I would just say that I was working on a project.” Burgner says. “Months go by, and finally they ask me what I’m doing. When I told them I was cooking worm burgers at my friend’s house, they just sort of said What? But then we won UB WCC and they wanted to try the burgers.”
Winning UB’s WCC helped validate the Numu project and make it a reality.
Numu took first place in UB’s World’s Challenge Challenge in April, which allowed them to advance to the international competition at Western University earlier this month.
The second-place winner in the April contest at UB was Roads to Success, a team that aims to divert plastic from the waste stream by reusing bits of plastic waste in material used to build roads. The Roads to Success team includes UB students Karrar Aljanahi (biological sciences and mathematics), Daniel Petrov (chemical engineering) and Umair Syed (biological sciences and public health).
The third-place winner in the UB competition was Freedom Walker, an attachment that allows traditional walkers to travel over roads and surfaces that are not level — a technology that is especially helpful in developing countries with large aging populations. The Freedom Walker team includes UB students Jonathan Bessette (mechanical engineering and fine arts), Lyon Lascu (marketing) and Matthania Volmy (social sciences interdisciplinary: health and human services, and sociology of health and society).
Funding for UB's WCC was provided by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. Other support was provided by UB Sustainability, Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars and International Education.
Numu spent the two months in between UB’s WCC and the Global Final adjusting its presentation. The team members were traveling and made most of their adjustments virtually, but the majority of changes took place the week before the competition. Numu worked with UB Sustainability to enhance its presentation, improving its logo and turning statistics into visually appealing diagrams.
The team also developed aprons with its logo, which turned out to be a great bonding experience, according to Hassaballah.
“We printed three stickers of our logo, and we needed to get those three stickers onto our three aprons,” Hassaballah says. “It took all six of our hands, and we were doing it just 12 hours before the competition.”
Team members have leaned on each other in various situations throughout Numu’s existence. Hassaballah and Kirtane first discussed Numu while working in one of the environmental engineering labs. Burgner joined the team after Kirtane was impressed by her perspective and what she had to offer.
“I am a business student, and Abdul and Anish are more on the creative side. That’s why I think we are such a good team. You need someone who knows the financial side of things, and they know all the environmental effects,” Burgner says.
Burgner and Kirtane met through UB Sustainability's Education and Leadership in Sustainability Fellows (ELFs) program, which promotes such cross-disciplinary mingling.
Burgner has also encouraged the team to participate in more pitch competitions, according to Kirtane. He gave Burgner a 90-second pitch on the idea, and after her feedback, the team decided to enter UB’s Bulls Launch. The team ended up winning the first pitch competition, and began to plan for UB’s WCC.
The $7,500 Numu won from its third-place finish at the WCC Global Final will help the team address some of its long-term goals. Right now, the team members are looking at participating in a few food festivals throughout New York State, and addressing some of the paperwork necessary to start a business. The group is also looking at a few different fundraising initiatives, and would like to operate a food truck en route to its “big dream.”
“A food truck would allow for product validation,” Burgner says. “We would be able to go out and test it, and see if people would support it.”
According to Hassaballah, Numu would like to take its sustainable goals a step further. “The big dream is to have our own new sustainable and eco-friendly products in our own brick and mortar store,” Hassaballah says. “It’s more than just burgers.”
Numu’s first presentation was 90 seconds. Burgner, Hassaballah and Kirtane had to turn the minute and a half presentation into 10 minutes for UB’s WCC, before cutting back to seven minutes for the WCC Global Final. These adjustments have been a significant benefit to the team, according to Hassaballah.
“This made us malleable, and I think, as a team, we generally have a feel-good vibe,” Hassaballah says. “None of us are ‘cut-throat’ competitive. Sure, we aspire, we dream big, but the results are always based on our genuine idea. We’re doing our best. We won UB WCC, we lost another competition and we got third in the Global Final, we still feel great. We’re still Numu.”