CAMBRIDGE — The problem: finding a high-quality source of protein for hundreds of millions of people that can be raised quickly, without consuming a lot of land, water, and other resources.
The solution: bug farms.
Breeding and raising edible insects is just one of the ideas of six teams of college and graduate students competing for a $1 million prize to tackle one of the world’s biggest challenges: providing nutritious food to a nearly 1 billion people in the developing world without damaging the environment and contributing to global warming.
The prize, financed by the family of Bertil Hult, founder of EF Education First, one of the world’s largest international education firms, will provide the seed money for the winning team to launch a social enterprise to put its ideas into practice.
The teams are winners of regional contests held around the world.
They have spent the past six weeks at the Cambridge campus of the Hult International Business School, an institution started and supported by Bertil Hult, honing their business models and pitches for the final round, which will he held in New York next month. The winner will be selected by a panel of judges led by former President Bill Clinton.
The Hult Prize was founded in 2009 as a student-run competition with no prize money aimed at promoting social entrepreneurship, which uses business practices and innovation to solve social problems. Prize money was first offered in 2011.
Over the past four years, the number of applicants has grown to 11,000 from 1,000, attracting students from more than 150 countries.
Past competitions have focused on issues like energy and water quality, and resulted in social enterprises such as SolarAid, which, as the largest solar panel producer in Africa, is bringing electricity to remote areas.
This year, students were challenged to address world hunger. Access to nutritious yet affordable food is the problem facing 200 million people in urban slums. And the problem is expected to worsen as populations grow and urbanization spreads.
Gabe Mott, an MBA student at McGill University in Montreal, said he and his teammates, the winners of the Boston regional competition, hadn’t expected to get into social entrepreneurship, but the Hult Prize opened opportunities.
In their research, the McGill students discovered many people in developing nations were getting enough food, usually carbohydrate-laden staples such as rice, but inadequate nutrition.
They also discovered that about 30 percent of the world’s population eats insects, a good source of protein and nutrients. But many can’t afford to buy them, especially when the insects are only seasonally available. That is how they came up with the idea of insect farms to breed and raise edible bugs.
“Pound for pound, crickets provide approximately equivalent amounts of protein, four times the iron, and at least five times the calcium that can be obtained from eating beef,” said Mott. Meanwhile, crickets require much less feed, land, and water than cows.
“For a planet that is running low on crops, water, and land, insects are of the food of the future,” said Mott. “No one imagined we would be creating insect colonies when we started our MBA.”
This is the first year the competition has included an accelerator, a fast-paced program offering seminars in business strategies and mentorship from local business leaders, like Roger Berkowitz, the chief executive of Legal Sea Foods. It also included legal training, on topics such as incorporating as nonprofits, from the Boston law firm Foley Hoag.
Ahmad Ashkar, who developed the idea for the Hult Prize while a student at the Hult International Business School,said the Boston area was chosen to host the accelerator because of its entrepreneurial culture and specialists from local universities and management consulting companies.
“If you can make money doing social good, entrepreneurs will chase it,” said Ashkar. “What is your company doing to benefit the world? With the Hult Prize, we’ve infected business students around the world to think that way.”
The regional competitions were held at Hult International Business School’s satellite campuses in Cambridge, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, and Dubai, as well as online.
The ideas range from high to low tech. Pulse, the teamfrom the Hult International Business Schoolcampus in San Francisco, would use cheap mobile phones to allow residents of urban slums to pay for food, helping them to increase savings and protect their money from being stolen.
The London School of Economics won the online submission spot. The team, Sokotext, gathers multiple food requests into one order to get cheaper wholesale prices for people living in alum areas. Team Poshnam from the Asian Institute of Management in the Philippines wants to create a new market for the blemished produce that farms typically discard, providing low-cost and nutritional, albeit “ugly,” fruits and vegetables.
The team of University of Cape Town in South Africa wants to provide a low-cost gardening method in which prefertilized seed strips allow the gardener to cut water consumption by 20 percent.
Origin, the team from the ESADE Business School in Spain, would use low-cost tablet computers to allow farmers to directly sell produce to customers in urban slums.
“Business school methods and mindset can solve problems that are complex, yet very solvable,” said Origin team member Jon Myer, who lives in Melbourne.