While the tradition of students treating coffee as figurative ‘fuel’ is alive and well, some U of T graduate students are aiming to lend this term a literal meaning. Team Moto, a group of students studying at the Rotman School of Management and the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, has developed an alternative fuel log made primarily from used coffee grounds.

The team advanced to a high level in the competition for the prestigious Hult Prize.

The Hult Prize Foundation describes itself as “a start-up accelerator for social entrepreneurship” and is a collaboration between the Hult family of philanthropists, their namesake Hult International Business School, and former President Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative.

University and college students across the world compete in local and online competitions for an invitation to one of five regional competitions of the best social enterprises.

Social enterprises are businesses that attempt to provide value to society by tackling shared issues, like improving the environment, while also making profit.

The winners of these five competitions spend a summer working on their social enterprise, supported by the expertise of the Hult Prize Foundation. The winning team is announced by former President Bill Clinton and awarded $1 million USD to continue their efforts to expand their social enterprise.

Seeking to improve the lives of those in refugee camps, Team Moto, named after the Swahili word for ‘fire,’ initially identified gender-based violence as their target issue and soon realized that violence towards women and children frequently happens while they gather firewood.

Looking for an alternative energy source that would allow women and children to avoid collecting firewood, the team was inspired by an Instagram photo of a decorative log made from coffee grounds.

Matthew Frehlich, a graduate student in Electrical & Computer Engineering and a member of Team Moto, outlines how they connected this social media post to a pressing global issue. “Coffee grounds are actually a very good fuel source when properly treated, and Canada alone produces around 400k tonnes of it per year that mainly goes straight to the landfill — we thought why not put it to good use?”

Team Moto is currently testing their coffee log in a refugee camp in Uganda, and they have ambitious plans for next steps. Frehlich says the team will “launch a larger scale pilot program in Africa to verify our business model, develop further strategic partnerships with organizations such as UNHCR, and validate our assumptions on working in refugee camps.”

Having honed their product and pitch, Team Moto advanced to the regional stage of the Hult Prize, competing in Shanghai on March 3. The team advanced to the final pitch round and finished in the top three.

While in Shanghai, Frehlich was heartened by how many students see the potential to “create social good through business.” He said, “The social entrepreneurship community is a fantastic group of passionate people. We were able to meet tons of inspiring entrepreneurs, and it was amazing how accessible everyone was and how willing they are to help.”

If Team Moto had won both the Shanghai competition and the global $1 million USD prize, they “would [have aimed] to launch our pilot and provide our firewood substitute to 5,000 refugees. This seed funding would cover the costs to set up initial processing facilities in Canada and supply chain in Africa, along with R&D to refine our product.”

Frehlich is realistic about the magnitude of the work ahead of the team. “It’s a big challenge, but with the funding and the supplier and distribution partnerships we’ve already developed, we believe we could make it work!”

The history of the Hult Prize suggests that Team Moto could likely “make it work” and drive meaningful social good through their entrepreneurship. In 2015, the prize was won by a team from the National Chengchi University in Taiwan who proposed improving early childhood education in urban slums in the developing world by leveraging existing local daycares as the foundation for a network of early education franchises.

Closer to home, the 2013 Hult Prize focused on the global food crisis and was won by a team from McGill University who created a social enterprise processing and selling edible insects. Their startup has spread to the United States, Mexico, and Ghana, and is one of the largest commercial providers of insects for human consumption.

Team Moto’s coffee-based solution may be more appetizing than edible insects, but both have potential to create positive social change.

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