A startup at the University of Arkansas focused on creating bio-based chemicals and fuels won the prestigious Bangkok Business Challenge, earning nearly $20,000 at Asia’s longest-running global student startup competition. ProPika, co-founded by Nhiem Cao and Angel Treat, specializes in transforming billions of tons of unused agricultural waste into eco-friendly fuels and chemicals. The company says its breakthrough lies in processing cellulose, a challenging natural polymer found in all plants.

The company won the competition’s grand prize — H.M. The King of Thailand’s Award — to secure $18,000 for their venture, $2,000 of which goes to U of A. The competition was held June 20-22 and hosted by the Sasin School of Management.  ProPika also won $300 each for Best Business Plan, Best Presentation, and reaching the semifinal round. ProPika received another $500 as a Sustainability Award finalist.

Cao said the winnings will go toward further validating the technology and gives ProPika “little longer non-dilutive runway. We plan on continuing the research and push it as far as we can,” Cao said. “There are some technical challenges we need to overcome. If we can break through those, this is definitely a homerun opportunity.” 

Launched in 2002, the Bangkok Business Challenge has distributed more than $220 million in funding to startups. The competition’s objectives focus on encouraging scalable new venture creation, providing an international and business-matching platform, and creating commercial value for research and development efforts.

This year’s event featured more than 200 applicants — representing 62 institutions across 19 countries — that were winnowed to 20 to compete in Bangkok for a $46,000 prize pool. With ProPika as the sole U.S. representative, other teams came from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Nepal, Taiwan and Vietnam.

“This was a truly international competition,” Cao said. “We wanted to represent the university and the state well. Hopefully this is the beginning of a winning tradition for the University of Arkansas at the Bangkok Business Challenge.”

Treat said the victory showed that U of A “can compete and excel on an international level. We’re proud to bring this achievement home and hope it inspires future U of A teams to aim high and pursue their own groundbreaking ideas as well,” Treat said.

Cao and Treat formed ProPika after enrolling in the entrepreneurship track of U of A’s Master of Science in Product Innovation program. Overseen by U of A’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, MSPI develops the skills to create, launch and manage products in the context of a startup venture or innovative industry environment.

They were embedded in the New Venture Development course sequence of MSPI, which is led by David Hinton, executive director of U of A Technology Ventures, and Sarah Goforth, former executive director of OEI. ProPika is using technology licensed from Technology Ventures, a process that helps get U of A research to market, Hinton said.

For more information, visit entrepreneurship.uark.edu