Prize-winning students have established a startup to develop new biologically based plastics recycling technologies.
Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao have formed BioCellection, a San Jose, Calif., company aiming to identify microbes with an affinity to eat scrap plastic, especially plastics constituting marine pollution. The first target is polystyrene waste.
Wang, 22, and Yao, 21, began their quest in high school in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2012. They found bacteria in the Fraser River that could eat phthalates, a class of plasticizers widely used in flexible vinyl. With help from a University of British Columbia professor, they isolated three strains of bacteria that seemed to prefer phthalates to other potential food sources.
Success in the early going spurred them on to find bacteria that break down more complex plastic materials. On June 8, Wang and her partners formally opened BioCellection in San Jose's BioCube, an incubator facility for startups in biotechnology, nanotechnology and environmentally clean technologies.
“If we can make plastics synthetically, we believe we can break them down chemically and in other ways,” Wang said in a phone interview.
BioCellection aims to break down plastics using a combination of biology, chemistry and mechanical action. The company envisions eventually breaking down scrap polystyrene into carbon dioxide and water.
“[BioCellection] has engineered a prototype strain and is developing chemical depolymerization processes that will be tested and iteratively optimized now through 2017,” Wang stated.
BioCellection won the $30,000 Perlman Grand Prize of the 2016 Wharton Business Plan Competition held by the University of Pennsylvania faculty. Combined with other prizes, Wang and Yao have garnered about $90,000 in winnings they can apply to their research. In total, BioCellection has raised $165,000 in grant money and another $450,000 from investors.
Wang said BioCellection already has a slate of private investors and has begun working with Prime Manufacturing Technologies Inc. in Savage, Md., for early development, but the new firm also is interested in taking on other partners and mentors.
Wang said her team has begun tackling PS waste because it currently has a relatively low value in recycling streams and makes up more than 30 percent of marine pollution. They have two patents pending, one for “value generation process for upcycling polystyrene,” the other for genetic engineering.
“We are using a combination of in-house and out-sourced research, in addition to out-sourced manufacturing for scale-up,” Wang explained.
BioCellection researchers are visiting polluted marine sites this summer for sample collection.
Wang recently graduated with a degree in cellular biology from the University of Pennsylvania while Yao graduated from the University of Toronto in biotechnology. They have set lofty goals for themselves and think it is possible their new venture could grow into a $100 million business by 2020.