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Leiden alternative to plastic microparticles wins second prize in European student competition

A team of students from Leiden and Groningen took the second prize at the European final of the BISC-E sustainability competition. Last June, the team had already won the Dutch finals. The students came up with ‘Suckerspheres’, a natural alternative to the plastic micro-particles that are still frequently present in cosmetic products. They talk about their experiences during the finals.

What was it like to win the second prize in this competition?

Maarten Lubbers: ‘We are very happy with the result, because we worked very hard for it. It was an honour to compete with the other European teams. There were a lot of interesting projects, such as that of the Belgian team. Those students found a way to make plant manure from human hair. The team from Greece ultimately won first place. This team devised a production line to turn bitter oranges, which normally end up in waste, into usable materials.’

‘The final consisted of two rounds in which we had to present our idea twice. A professional jury with experts from various universities and the industry judged the first presentation. The second round was judged by a larger panel, consisting of stakeholders and members of the biobased industries consortium, a partnership of companies and organisations which is committed to a sustainable society. We won the first round, in the second round we came second! Ultimately, good for the second prize in the competition.’

So, you can say your presentations were successful?

Laurens ter Haar: 'The presentations went very well! We had prepared them extensively and processed the feedback from the national finals as well as possible. As a result, I went into it with full confidence. Still, it was a bit strange to do it online, especially because you could only see your own slides during the presentation, so you were not "in touch" with the audience at all.  Sometimes I wondered whether the audience was still connected or whether I was talking in the void. But when the positive reactions and interesting questions came in afterwards, all doubt was gone.’

You mentioned the feedback: after winning the Dutch finals, there was still a lot of work to be done: the business plan, for example, had to be a lot more realistic. How did you tackle that?

Georgy Bubnenkov: 'In order to improve our business plan, we called in the help of various experts, such as Professor Peter Punt of the Leiden Institute of Biology. As a co-founder of Dutch DNA, he was able to give us a lot of advice both technically and financially. With their input, we were able to make more realistic assumptions about the production requirements: for example, it was necessary that the production of the protein would not cost too much money.’

Furthermore, we provided a more detailed description of the necessary partners for each step of our project. In our plan, L'Oréal would be one of our partners. This company has a large share of the microbead market and has experience in replacing the microbeads in its products. For the production of our protein in bioreactors, we wanted to collaborate with Wacker; a German company with a lot of experience in this field. We also created a model of the production process, in order to link science and finance and thus get an indication of the costs and revenues.’

The Suckerspheres team. With from left to right: Laurens ter Haar, Floor Stel, Georgy Bubnenkov, Marjolein Crooijmans, Daniël Tan, Maarten Lubbers (in front), Jonah Anderson and Daan van Tol

You were supposed to go to Paris for the European final, but because of Covid-19, the event took place online. How did you experience that?

Marjolein Crooijmans: 'Of course we understand it was necessary, but we were still disappointed that the live final in Paris could not take place. We had already started brainstorming about this project well before Covid-19. Because you all work together for months on end, such a final is normally a very exciting moment, where everything and everyone comes together. It is also an excellent networking event, and you get the chance to get in touch with other teams, companies and organisations during all kinds of activities. Unfortunately, there was no online alternative to these activities.’

Are there any plans to actually produce the Suckerspheres?

Lubbers: 'Because we unfortunately could not carry out any lab work because of Covid-19, our project was purely theoretical.’

Crooijmans: 'That's why there are no plans at the moment. Based on our calculations, we found out that it is quite expensive to produce these alternative microbeads on a mass scale. However, we do believe that with the right help we can significantly reduce these costs!’


The team wants to use the squid protein suckerine as a sustainable and biological alternative to plastic microbeads. Plastic microbeads are tiny plastic balls that are used in many cosmetics, such as sunscreen and shampoo. Ter Haar: ‘Producers add them, for example, to improve the spreadability of their product, but sometimes also simply as cheap bottle filling.’ The plastic particles end up on a large scale in the environment and ultimately in plants, animals and people. Suckerspheres, or spheres made of suckerine, have to replace the plastic microbeads. The team wants to produce the protein sustainably using yeast. Suckerspheres are also biodegradable.

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