National Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Competition 2019; winner profiles

UFS microbiologists solve brewing problems for South Africa and the world

At the Entrepreneurial Intervarsity Competition finals of 19 September, 2019, a 31-year-old old doctoral candidate at the University of the Free State, Christopher Rothmann, walked away with a joint runner-up prize alongside a University of Cape Town student. The competition adjudicators made the runner-up decision on account of the high quality of contending businesses in the Existing Technological Business category (Category 2).

Christopher Rothmann
Christopher Rothmann being recognised as a runner-up in the Existing Technological Business Category at the Entrepreneurship Intervarsity awards ceremony on 19 September. He is pictured here with Ms Fuzlin Levy-Hassen, CEO of Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), which helped fund LiquidCulture and is therefore being credited alongside other players for the company's success.

Rothmann, who is completing his PhD in Biotechnology, runs a company by the name of LiquidCulture with Dr Errol Cason, an Animal Breeding lecturer in the University of the Free State's Faculty of Agriculture. Together they started the company in 2018.

LiquidCulture produces yeast in its most pure liquid form, a venture unique to their business and the first of its kind on the African continent. Says Rothmann: "Our yeast is mainly used by breweries for the fermentation of beer. As we always say 'brewers make sugar water but yeast makes beer'." He adds that they have also started supplying bakers and distillers with their product.

According to Rothmann, LiquidCulture is not their first business. He and Dr Cason are also brewers in their own right and co-owners of Kraft Brewing Co, a venture started from this mutual hobby in home brewing. After a few years of running Kraft Brewing and supplying numerous places around Bloemfontein, the entrepreneurs found a gap in the market. "Because of our background as microbiologists, we were able to grow our own yeast, producing a better quality product which saved us money while also enabling us to expand our choice of yeast strains to use." As they introduced these unique strains of yeast to the market, other local breweries saw their value and developed an interest. This is how LiquidCulture came into being. When the name became formalised, the company was already supplying the industry.

Rothmann says the word 'Liquid' in their name was a natural choice because they produce liquid yeast. 'Culture' was inspired by what they hope to build with users of their product: a shared way of life as well as developing expert care and providing training to ensuring capacity for learning and interchanging knowledge for future brewers. "At this point we are educating brewers and brewer apprentices around the beer culture." He is, himself, gradually becoming recognised as an authority - often invited to speak on brewing at seminars, workshops and brewer festivals.

Quality and consistency are the challenges that Rothmanns wishes to solve for brewers

Rothmann says over the years he has noticed that quality and consistency are the biggest problems - yet they are the most important aspect of beer production in South Africa's brewer market. "Coincidently, with an exploding beer market, the two are the key factors that will set brewers apart. Ours is to make sure that these problems become a thing of the past." Their aim is to provide breweries with fresh liquid yeast for every stock of brew. In addition to the over 100 strains of yeast and bacteria currently in the market, they continue to develop new proudly South African strains. They also store and propagate (i.e. multiply) any yeast cultures that breweries already have and wish to continue with.

A win-win arrangement with the University of the Free State

Rothmann in one of their laboratories at the University of Free State.

Rothmann prides himself for the state-of-the-art facilities that they work from, within the department of Microbiology, Biochemistry and Food-Biotechnology at the University of the Free State. LiquidCulture currently has a royalty-based partnership agreement with the UFS, within the context of which the University receives royalties for each of the unique strains that LiquidCulture commercialises. In addition to this, they pay a rental fee for utilising the institutions equipment and laboratories.

Owing to having the largest yeast culture collections in the Southern Hemisphere, the UFS's Department of Microbiology, Biochemistry and Food-Biotechnology is collaborating with, and has completed several projects with the South African Breweries (SAB) in brewing yeast research. In that regard, "our institution has become one of the leading fermentation research platforms in the world."

The institution has therefore been central to the success of LiquidCulture. "Mr Gerardus Verhoef, Director at the Research and Development office, has been there along the way, linking us to mentors and business advisors." The University was instrumental to securing funding from the Technology Innovative Agency (TIA) which catapulted LiquidCulture to where it is today.

UFS's role in promoting entrepreneurship

Just recently, the UFS hosted their Student Entrepreneurship Week (SEW) for the year 2019. The SEW, piloted in 2017 by the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme and rolled out during 2018 across the system, is aimed at entrenching the entrepreneurship culture within public universities.

Rothmann says although in general, the UFS has been a slow starter when it comes to promoting entrepreneurship, more programmes are beginning to embrace the concept under the leadership of the UFS DRD (directorate research and development). He believes that the size of universities often makes communication dissemination a major challenge.

He also believes that it will take a lot of mindset shift to build a culture of entrepreneurship. "Some people maintain the belief that students must come in, get degrees and leave as soon as possible. It might take continuous persuasion for such people to open up to the possibility of students exiting the system with more than just a qualification. An entrepreneurship mindset needs to be seriously instilled and developed."

It pays to enter the Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Competition

He encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to enter the Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Competition, "even if it is to better their network, and get constructive feedback on their ideas."

Rothmann with some of the fellow finalists
Rothmann with some of the fellow finalists before the winners were announced on 19 September. From left: Lwazi Hlongwana, Christopher Rothmann, Sibongile Mdlaka, Simon Maumela, Pakiso Masooa and Siphelele Mdletshe.

He closes off by saying "Without yeast, there can be no beer!"

LiquidCulture can be found on Facebook and Instagram under @liquidculture and also on their website:

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