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InnovationRCA Start-ups Excel at the Women in Innovation Awards

Dr Carmen Hijosa who developed Piñatex™ the world’s first sustainable leather alternative; and Elena Dieckmann, who is currently developing her IDE graduate project Aeropowder, an additive for composites and paints that captures the core properties of bird feathers, have won Innovate UK's Women in Innovation Awards.

Three of the 34 finalists in Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation Awards were entrepreneurs supported by InnovationRCA, the College’s centre for enterprise, entrepreneurship, incubation and business support. ‘That three of the finalists in this UK-wide competition are RCA graduates and InnovationRCA entrepreneurs is a real testament to the value of an RCA education and to the strength of its business start-up programme’ commented Dr Nadia Danhash, Director of InnovationRCA. 

The Women in Innovation Awards is a new initiative to support diversity in innovation and encourage women to apply for innovation funding. The finalists were paired with a mentor and received tailored support – from guidance on accessing funding to media and communications training. They also benefited from introductions to investors and other networking opportunities through the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub, Knowledge Transfer Network and European Enterprise Network and Catapults.

The finalists were selected for their personal drive, entrepreneurial experience and potential to become leaders in business innovation. As well as receiving support through the award they will also take part in activities to encourage and inspire other women to engage with business innovation. From the finalists several overall winners will be selected to receive £50,000 towards building their business.

Dieckmann is the 2016 IDE graduate behind Aeropowder, one the latest companies to join the InnovationRCA incubation programme. Her graduating MA project devised ways to make use of the huge amount of feather waste produced in poultry farming – last year in the UK alone, 900 million chickens were slaughtered, equating to 2,000 tons of feather waste per week. Feathers are water repellent, non-toxic, chemically unreactive, insulating and lightweight; Dieckmann is developing a range of applications that take advantage of these properties, from insulation to structural reinforcement in bio-composites.

Hijosa’s Piñatex™ makes use of waste from agriculture – the fibres extracted from the leaves of the pineapple plant that are normally discarded and left to rot. In 2012 Hijosa’s research project Ananas Anam, was selected to take part in the InnovationRCA Incubator programme, which allowed her to develop a sustainable business model and rigorously test the capabilities of Piñatex™. ‘If it’s not a business, then it’s not going to go anywhere,’ said Hijosa. ‘That’s why we focused on getting the product to perform to market standards, and to embed it in a large-scale production context. There needs to be a certain tonnage to fulfil the value chain.’

Piñatex™ was officially launch in December 2014 and was the 2016 Arts Foundation winner for Material Innovation. Hijosa was also the finalist for Europe in the 2015 Cartier Women's Initiative Awards. ‘Embedding my research in the academic context at the Royal College of Art has been crucial’ she explained. ‘It has given me broader context across areas like social responsibility, up-cycling and cradle-to-cradle thinking.’ 

‘This award is important in that it recognises female entrepreneurs, who I believe comprise only about 15 per cent of the UK's entrepreneurs,’ explained Virginia Gardiner, the creator of Loowatt a sustainable waterless toilet, and the third entrepreneur shortlisted. ‘Being on the shortlist has offered me access to a whole new group of innovators, which has already been an inspiration.’ 

Gardiner’s innovative waterless toilet also takes an economically and environmentally sustainable approach to waste management. Loowatt toilets feature a biodegradable odour eliminating liner that is sealed when the toilet is “flushed”. Waste can then be broken down in an anaerobic digestion system to provide a source of biogas – for cooking, electricity, and other applications – and fertiliser.

Gardiner joined the InnovationRCA incubator in 2010 and through this support further developed her design and gained additional funding. ‘InnovationRCA was our first supporter’, she explained. ‘Their investment got our business out of the academic world and provided a launch pad for us to prepare for going commercial.’

Loowatt secured more than $1m in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Initiative, which enabled the business to scale up their pilot system in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, and put in more than 100 household toilets. The company has also created a luxury, environmentally friendly alternative to chemical toilets, which was first publicly demonstrated at Latitude in 2014, and has since been used for festivals and events across the UK.

Alongside the recent successes in the Women in Innovation Awards, Lauren Dickerson, co-founder of InnovationRCA start up Lunagen, has been shortlisted in the 2016 Women of the Future awards in the category of MBA Star. 

For more details about InnovationRCA visit: InnovationRCA