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Three Nazarbayev University students hope to worm their way to prosperity

05 march 2013, 11:27
0

In an industrial center near east Astana’s Shanghai Bazaar is a new kind of factory. One that produces maggots.

That’s not a typo. You read it right: Maggots.

Three Nazarbayev University students started the operation to produce protein-rich chicken feed.

Alibek Moldakozhayev, Bauyrzhan Ospan and Dias Alimbay figure the little white fly larvae can cover 20 percent of commercial chicken growers’ feed requirements.

“Corn is like macaroni for chickens, while maggots are like steak,” is the way Bauyrzhan sees it.

The maggots will not only help poultry producers feed their chickens, but also combat a waste problem. That’s because the larvae’s food is chicken manure.

The notion of a maggot-ranching operation might make some cringe. But it’s such a sound business idea that the City of Astana gave it an innovation award and start-up funding.

The three partners are so passionate about innovation that they began taking part in university-level research while in high school.

Alibek Moldakozhayev, left, and Bauyrzhan Ospan in a lab at Nazarbayev University. Photo courtesy of Alibek Moldakozhayev and Bauyrzhan Ospan

Alibek Moldakozhayev, left, and Bauyrzhan Ospan in a lab at Nazarbayev University. Photo courtesy of Alibek Moldakozhayev and Bauyrzhan Ospan

Alibek participated in two research projects at Kazakh National University while still at Kazakh-Turkish High School in Almaty. One involved recycling bottles, cans and other throw-aways. The other involved growing genetically modified worms.

His work with the worms led him to think about growing maggots for chicken feed.

“One fly can lay up to 70 eggs,” he noted. “They grow up fast and they reproduce fast.”

In fact, Bauyrzhan said, the actual statistic is nine days from egg to larvae.

Bauyrzhan took part in thermonuclear and aerospace-engineering projects at Karaganda Polytechnic University and Karaganda State University while still at Kazakh Turkish High School in Karaganda.

He also participated in demonstration projects at the School of Aeronautical Engineering at Baikonur, the home of Kazakhstan’s space program, and at Britain’s University of Leicester.

When Alibek and Bauyrzhan met at Nazarbayev University, they immediately knew they were kindred spirits.

Not only did the two Robotics and Mechatronics majors share a love of science, they also shared a passion for harnessing it to help mankind. “I found a guy who also wants to make the world better,” Alibek said.

They decided to work together on research they could turn into business possibilities.

The two enlisted Dias in their partnership because he had both a science and business background.

“We’re two scientists,” Bauyrzhan said. “We lack business skills.”

Dias, who is from Semey, worked on a nanotechnology research project at Eurasian National University in Astana while attending the Nazarbayev Intellectual School in Astana.

The son of a military engineer, he has also studied mathematics and economics, however. His junior-high-school team took third in an international competition on management and economic modeling.

After wavering between an economics and science career, Dias decided on science. He’s now a robotics and mechatronics major at Nazarbayev University.

The three second-year students have pursued their chicken-feed-production project outside the confines of Nazarbayev University’s research programs.

But they’re exactly the kind of research-oriented students the university looks for.

When the institution that bears Nursultan Nazarbayev’s name was still in the concept stage, the president asked that it become Kazakhstan’s first applied-science university. He wanted the institution’s research to generate products to create jobs and expand the economy in addition to increasing scientific knowledge.

Graduate students conduct a lot of research at many Western-style universities. Nazarbayev University encourages research from undergraduates as well.

The break that transformed the project from concept to reality came in February of last year, when the research team consisted only of Alibek and Bauyrzhan. The two took first place in the Astana Start-up Weekend competition, whose goal is to foster innovative business ideas.

The win was particularly satisfying because “there were a lot of cool projects” in the competition, Bauyrzhan said.

The team used the prize of 500,000 tenge, or about $3,400, to start a pilot project in Almaty to determine “is this technology practical or not,” Bauyrzhan said. It turned out it was.

The next step toward the partners starting a company was obtaining a seed grant of 7 million tenge, or about $47,000, in June from Astana Innovations, the city’s innovation-promotion agency.

Dias joined the team the same month because the Astana Innovations grant catapulted the project from the research stage to the business stage.

 

The money, awarded under the Astana New Town, New City program, allowed the team to create its feed-production operation in a compact 100-square-meter facility and to hire two employees.

The operation uses chicken manure to feed the larvae of gigantic gray flies and blue meat flies.

To ensure no flies or maggots escape, the team designed a three-tiered security system, Bauyrzhan said, without elaborating.

When the operation is in full swing, the goal is to generate 200 kilograms of maggots a day.

Initially the partners plan to sell to bait shops and zoos.  “Fish and birds love this food,” Bauryzhan said.

Eventually the team hopes to provide maggot-growing technology directly to poultry producers in a sort of franchise operation.

“The maggots can be sold live, dead, frozen or dried,” Alibek said.

Live or dead is fine for fish, he said.

Freezing the maggots would prevent spoilage at poultry operations. And dried maggots would make feed storage more compact.


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