HEC Graduates Vie for Student ‘Nobel Prize’
For the second time in its 10-year history, HEC Paris acceded to the coveted Hult Prize Finals, a contest described by Muhammad Yunus as the “Nobel Prize for students”. After an epic semifinal at Berkhamsted Castle on August 31, the trio of HEC graduates reached the September 14 showdown thanks to their startup project ProTeen.
“It’s official!” trumpeted the three HEC alumni on their Facebook page after they triumphed in the August 31 semifinals in the regal castle in Ashridge, southern England. Alessandra Mantovani, Ludivine Berouard and Tommie Hooft (who replaced fellow-graduate Louise Kuehme) were glowing after a six-week accelerator program at the castle was capped by a series of pitching rounds, which saw them come on top against 44 teams. “We are headed to the United Nations to represent HEC Paris in the Hult Prize Finals! We are beyond excited to share our business with the world and take our impact to the next level.”
ProTeen will be competing with five other campus team champions for the ultimate Hult award, $1 million of seed capital. The former students from HEC’s SASI degree program (the MSc Sustainability & Social Innovation created by the school’s Society & Organizations Center) and the school’s incubator at Station F have been honing their presentation throughout the 2018-2019 academic year. They reaped several student and startup rewards with a solution to repurpose city waste, employ local youth, combat climate change’s most nefarious effects and distribute products to fulfill market demands in livestock feed and soil fertilizer. The startup achieves these objectives thanks to leveraging the circular economy by using black soldier flies to transform organic waste into animal feed. This feed, they claim, is sustainable and cost-effective making farming more profitable throughout Africa.
Strong HEC Support Network
The Ugandan-based project is also creating youth employment and entrepreneurship opportunities, “providing meaningful jobs for 10,000 youth”. From the start, ProTeen’s Chief Operations Officer Boby Ogwang has been involved in the team’s success and followed the Hult semifinal win closely: “Team work is the key!” he confided to HEC. “The semifinals victory is a true manifestation of a well-coordinated business-focused and an open-minded team. In my opinion, we won because we were able to learn quickly, take the guidance from the mentors seriously and apply it immediately both in Uganda (improving our business operations, by our team on the ground) and in Ashridge (modifying our business pitch).”
Boby Ogwang, Ludivine Berouard and Tommie Hooft cofounded this circular agriculture project in Uganda under the name MAWA. In Kampala, the three devised a business model to create an insect farm franchise operated locally but easily exportable. “This is part of a wider project tackling waste generation, food insecurity, climate change and unemployment,” wrote the SASI students shortly after winning the London regional competition in March 2019. “We would not have made it this far in the competition without the guidance, support and sheer brilliance of our teammates, the alumni and mentors who have inspired us since joining the master’s, and the HEC Paris professors who provided valuable feedback on our pitch.”
ProTeen was further assisted by the HEC incubator. The students won a place in the Launchpad program with yet another successful pitch. “ProTeen symbolizes the values we aim to instill in the Launchpad startup projects,” explained Guillaume Le Dieu de Ville, program director at the HEC-Ecole 42 Start Up Launchpad. “We have put an emphasis on the social responsibility of our young entrepreneurs. Ludivine, Alessandra and Tommie have pushed the new values of our time to a paroxysm by creating this project. I was impressed by their progress which included opening a first test farm in Uganda during the incubation! No wonder they won through the Hult Prize final.”
Overcoming Global Competitors
Five months later, ProTeen was competing for the finals in the same castle in which William the Conqueror was crowned King of England in 1066. “Teams stemmed from opposite sides of the globe - from Japan to Africa to Canada,” said Ludivine Berouard after the win. “Startup industries range from circular agriculture to AI driven co-learning to smart-wearables for the medical sector. All in the quaint English countryside of Ashridge. United by their passion for social impact." Tommie Hooft added: “We were not expecting such tough competition. Our competitors at the accelerator were innovative, razor-sharp and moved quickly.”
Which made ProTeen’s win all the more laudable. “Our mentors at Ashridge were instrumental to our success, in particular Vinod Parmeshaw,” insisted French American Mantovani, “and their guidance will make a lasting impact on our startup. Mentors worked tirelessly with us, sometimes brainstorming as late as 2am in our office”
Optimism for the Hult Finals
The HEC team are currently preparing hard for the finals, both in Europe and in the Ugandan capital Kampala. “We are optimistic about the finals knowing that whether or not we win, this will have been a life-enriching experience,” she added. “Beyond the one million dollar reward, there is a high chance of us meeting people at the United Nations who can propel our business. We are open and looking forward to making the most of every interaction!"
Such optimism rippled through the team both at the Berkhamsted Castle and at their headquarters in eastern Africa. So, 953 years after William the Conqueror’s coronation, the HEC ProTeen team were crowned winners of a semifinals of one of the most illustrious awards students worldwide can win. The HEC graduates have beaten off around 100,000 other applicants to reach the UN final and the possibility of winning a $1 million seed fund to expand their youth employment project.
The final takes place on Saturday, 2.30 pm New York time (8.30 pm Paris time). You can watch it live at http://www.hultprize.org/2019-unfinals/