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Playing chicken pays off for innovative insulation firm

When it comes to start-ups, one might expect the country's university students to come up with some ideas that are novel, different, eco-friendly and perhaps a little bit wacky.

All that may have been true of a number of entrants in the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs (Nacue) Varsity Pitch Competition, which is designed to recognise the best new company started by students.

However, this year's winner was all of that and more, with a superb new idea for insulation - chicken feathers.

This was the idea of Elena Dieckmann and Ryan Robinson, both former students of Imperial College London. They founded Aeropowder, a company that has found a new use for this readily available poultry industry by-product.

Out of dozens of entries, the competition was cut down to a shortlist of 30, with a boot camp reducing this to seven finalists.

In the end, however, there could only be one winner. Speaking to, chief executive of Nacue Holly Knower described the choosing of a winner as "tough", but said Aeropowder was a "worthy" champion.

She added: "Their concept is innovative, sustainable and creates a useable end product which we could all be using in business or in our homes in years to come."
Indeed, architects, plumbers and insulation firms around Britain and the globe may find themselves increasingly using this form of insulation, not least because the source is organic and plentiful.

The prize will be the sum of £10,000 for investment in the business and mentoring sessions with a "world class" business guru.

Discussing the firm's success, Mr Robinson said: "Winning the Nacue Varsity Pitch Competition is great because it shows that other people take our message about sustainability and reusing waste so seriously. There's a lot of hard work left to do, but we are feeling proud to have achieved this win.

"We’re looking to spend the £10,000 on scaling up our business. There are some key bits of machinery that will enable us to build full-sized pieces on a small scale volume wise, which will allow us to approach the right customers and generate the right kind of interest."

That development could have significant results, helping to turn a small company into a rapidly-expanding enterprise with a product that is easily sourced and for which there will be substantial demand, not least domestically as the government and construction industry work to ease the housing crisis by increasing the number of new homes being built.

Of course, all forms of insulation have an environmental benefit. Apart from stopping heat leaking out into the atmosphere outside, it means fewer emissions as less heating is needed to keep a building warm, and therefore less fossil fuel is burned to produce the energy in the first place. However, there is no doubt that using recycled organic material pushes the green credentials of insulation a notch higher.

This is not a totally new concept, of course. Sheep's wool has been used for years as an organic insulating material, a valuable new use for the material at a time when it is used less in clothing than it was before the advent of synthetic materials. It's good news for the environment, the buildings that stay warm through using it and the sheep farming industry all at the same time. It also has some particularly welcome properties. Not only is it a very good insulator by trapping warmth, but it retains its insulating qualities even when wet, which is why the sheep never look too bothered out on the hill when it's raining.

Feathers, or more specifically down feathers, have the same qualities, trapping warmth to keep the chicken (and her freshly-hatched brood) nice and cosy. It could just be that the organic insulation sector has just come up with a great innovation that will keep buildings warm the green way, while allowing Aeropowder's founders to feather their nests.