The well-known three-arrows symbol doesn’t necessarily mean that a product is actually recyclable. A new bill would limit the products allowed to feature the mark.
As we confront climate change, focusing on a single metric, like greenhouse gas emissions, could leave other harmful practices unaddressed.
The law aims to take the cost burden of recycling away from taxpayers. One environmental advocate said the change could be “transformative.”
A new report shows that a surprisingly small number of big companies and banks are behind the manufacturing and financing of much of the world’s single-use plastic.
The world’s biggest online retailer must become a leader in reducing single-use packaging.
Ford has been using 3D printing for prototyping and other design and engineering work. But 3D printing does not lend itself well to mass-produced parts. [credit: Ford ]
Slowly but surely, car companies are beginning to make themselves more sustainable. We most often hear about this in the context of using clean energy to power the production lines and assembly plants that put together new electric vehicles, but it shows up in smaller examples, too. Take Ford, for example. Working with HP, it has come up with a use for plastic waste left over from 3D printing, which it’s now using to make truck parts.
Like many automakers, Ford has been getting more comfortable with additive manufacturing. 3D printing lends itself well to producing low-volume parts that would otherwise be too expensive to make due to the cost of creating tooling. But in this case, some of those printed bits will actually end up in production vehicles—sort of.
Ford, working with HP (which supplies the Blue Oval with some of its printers), has started recycling 3D printed parts and powder and is using the plastic to make fuel clips for the F-250 truck. The waste plastic, along with similar waste from the dental company SmileDirectClub (which apparently has 60 3D printers making 40,000 aligners a day), gets sent to a company called Lavergne that turns it into plastic pellets that can then be used in injection molding machines. Those pellets are then used by one of Ford’s suppliers, ARaymond, to make the fuel clips.
Cloud Paper, the startup whose bamboo toilet paper (and celebrity and billionaire backers including Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Marc Benioff, Dara Khosrowshahi, and Mark Cuban) made a splash last year, is getting into the paper towel racket.
Starting today, the company is taking pre-orders for its 12 pack boxes of sustainably sourced bamboo paper towels, which will retail for $34.99.
The Seattle-based company was founded by two ex-Uber employees, Ryan Fritsch and Austin Watkins, who went on to take roles at the logistics startup Convoy, before launching Cloud Paper. Their toilet paper (and now paper towel company) is one of several businesses trying to get consumers to make the switch to bamboo-based consumer products.
Cozy Earth and Ettitude sell bamboo sheets and bedding; The Bamboo Clothing Co., Thought, Tasc, Free Fly Apparel, all make bamboo clothing; and Bite has a bamboo toothbrush to go with its plastic-free toothpastes and flosses.
But (I’m quoting myself here) Cloud Paper may be the only one to get such super wealthy, high profile investors to flush it with wads of cash. Even so, companies like Grove, Tushy, Reel, and the aptly named Who gives a crap, Inc. are all angling to wipe up a piece of the $10.4 billion market for toilet paper.
The company’s founders are on a mission to make the paper industry more sustainable, according to co-founder Ryan Fritsch, and they’re looking to do it one roll at a time.
While other companies look at bamboo as a replacement for cotton or plastics, the Cloud Paper co-founder said this company is squarely focused on toilet paper and paper towels because those products make up most of the crap that’s most wasteful in the paper industry.
The company has already ordered 1 million rolls of toilet paper for production and shipped hundreds of thousands of toilet paper, but the rationale for adoption has shifted, the company said.
“It definitely had its moment when the COVID shutdowns happened,” said Fritsch. “But [consumption] shifted from a TP panic to ‘There’s an easy and convenient, sustainable, option out there.’ It’s less of an all-out craze,” Fritsch said.
No less august a body than the National Resources Defense Council has come out swinging against how much waste is sacrificed to the commode.
For instance, the logging industry in Canada degrades over a million acres of its climate-critical forest, in part to feed U.S. demand for toilet paper, according to the NRDC. Demand from the U.S. has grown so substantially that, in recent years, Canada has ranked third globally in its rate of intact forest loss—behind only Russia and Brazil—mostly due to logging, the NRDC said.
Ninety percent of that is clearcutting, which exacerbates climate change. By the most conservative estimates, “logging in the boreal releases 26 million metric tons of carbon through driving emissions from the forest’s carbon-rich soils and eroding the forest’s ability to absorb carbon,” the NRDC wrote in 2020 report. “Toilet paper’s impact is even more severe because, since it is so short-lived, it quickly releases its remaining carbon into the atmosphere. That is why, according to the Environmental Paper Network, toilet paper made from trees has three times the climate impact as toilet paper created using recycled materials.”
That’s why wiping out forested paper can be a real boon in the climate fight.
“The lion’s share of usage is number one is toilet paper and number two is paper towels, after that the size of the market really really shrinks. We’re going to be continuing on the paper space,” said Fritsch.
The company’s next act will be working with businesses like restaurants, hotels, and even stadiums and arenas to make the swithc.
“We launched the company as a B2B company. We were working with WeWork and restaurants and the market — if you look at where our paper products were being used,” Fritsch said. “So another big focus will be building products for our commercial customers where there’s higher capacity.”
Data shows that American exporters continue to ship plastic waste overseas, often to poorer countries, even though most of the world has agreed to not accept it.
Late last year, Solugen, a startup using synthetic biology to take hydrocarbons out of the chemicals industry, decided against pursuing a new round of funding that would have valued the company at over $1 billion, TechCrunch has learned.
Instead, the Houston-based bio-manufacturing company raised an internal round of roughly $30 million from existing investors and continued working on its latest project — a new bio-based manufacturing process for a high-value specialty chemical that can act as an anti-corrosive agent.
That work represents a potentially lucrative new product line for the company and charts a course for a host of other businesses that are refashioning the basic building blocks of life in an attempt to supplant chemistry with biology for manufacturing and production.
If Solugen can get its high value chemical into commercial production, the company can follow the path that sustainable tech companies like Tesla have mastered — moving from a pricy specialty product into the mass market. And rather than over-promise and underdeliver. Solugen wanted to get the product line right first before raising big bucks, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking.
As the world looks to move away from oil and its byproducts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow down or reverse global climate change, the chemicals industry is in the crosshairs as a huge target for disruption. Vehicle electrification solves only one part of the oil problem. The extractive industry doesn’t just produce fuel, but also the chemicals that make up most of the products that defined consumer goods in the twentieth century.
Chemicals are everywhere and they’re a huge business.
Companies like Zymergen raised hundreds of millions of dollars last year to develop industrial applications for synthetic biology, and they’re not alone. Startups including Geltor, Impossible Foods, Ginkgo Bioworks, Lygos, Novomer, and Perfect Day have all raised significant amounts of capital to reduce the environmental footprint of food, chemicals, ingredients, and plastics through synthetic biology.
Some of these companies are seeing early success in food replacements and ingredients, but the promise of biologically based chemicals have been elusive — until now.
Solugen’s new product will produce glucaric acid, a tough-to-make chemical that can be used in water treatment facilities and as an anti-corrosive agent — and the company can make it with a zero carbon (or potentially carbon negative) manufacturing process, according to Solugen co-founder and chief technology officer, Sean Hunt.
The glucaric acid from Solugen is cheaper to produce and more environmentally friendly than existing phsophonates that are used for water treatment — and the company has the benefit of competing against chemicals manufacturers in China.
Given the continuing tensions between the two countries, the U.S. is looking to make more high value products — including chemicals — domestically, and Solugen’s technology is a good way forward to have home grown supplies of critical materials.
Solugen still intends to raise more capital, the company just wanted to wait until its latest production plant for the acid came online, according to Hunt.
It’s also the fruit of years of planning. The two co-founders, Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti first realized they could potentially use the technology they’d developed to make specialty chemicals back n 2017, according to Hunt. But first the company had to make the hydrogen peroxide as a precursor chemical, Hunt said.
“It’s advantageous for us to focus on this,” said Hunt. “As we scale, we can enter more commodity type markets down the road.”
It’s all part of the significant strides the entire industry is making, said Hunt. “Synthetic biology has really made significant strides,” he said. “We have our commercial plant coming online this summer [and it proves] synthetic biology has gotten to the point where we can compete on price and performance.”
So the capital infusion will come as the company gets closer to the completion of these commercial scale facilities.
“It’s not like we were sitting on a term sheet and we said no,” Hunt said. “We want to make sure that we are hitting the milestones and the goals at a commensurate pace which is this year. I’m extremely bullish and optimistic of 2021.”
Solugen’s co-founder sees the path that his company is on as one that other startups working in the synthetic biology space will pursue to bring profitable products to market at the higher end before competing with more sustainable versions of commodity chemicals.
“How do you start a company that has this level of capital intensity?” Hunt asked. “You can start in the fine chemicals space where everything sells for tens to hundreds of dollars per pound. For us, glucaric acid is that specialty chemical and then we will do commodity.”
Environmental issues may seem too big to tackle, but some smaller foundations have figured out ways to have an impact.
Someone living along the Ganges River in India recently received a gift that we can safely say no one on Earth had ever gotten before. At first, it must have looked like an ordinary plastic bottle floating down the river, save for the rod poking out of its top, like a sailboat with a mast but no sail. The giftee, who remains anonymous, must have gotten curious and ripped open the 500-milliliter bottle, finding that it was in fact packed with electronics. Those included a SIM card, which the person popped into a mobile device and then logged into Facebook.
“The reason we knew it was in use was when we got the bill,” says Alasdair Davies, a technical specialist at the Zoological Society of London. You see, Davies, along with conservation scientist Emily Duncan of the University of Exeter and other researchers, had not long before released the bottle and nine others into the Ganges as part of a clever experiment to show how plastic pollution moves through rivers and eventually out to sea. SIM cards allowed the ill-fated bottle and its companions to connect to cell towers every three hours as they journeyed down the river, recording in great detail how far and how fast the devices traveled. One sailed 380 miles over 51 days.
We can all, by now, ascribe to the idea that something has changed in the last few months. Like it or not, business is not as it was. If we were true to ourselves, we would admit that our lives will never be the name again. But parallel to this visceral feeling, is the quite clear and objective truth that the planet that sustains our existence is in trouble. So, surely, is it not beholden upon us to step up? Is this both a moral and a commercial opportunity?
Today Astanor Ventures is launching a $325m ‘Global Impact fund’ concentrating on food and agriculture technology. These are two of the most pressing areas in the climate debate, The aim is to deploy funds across Europe and North America.
Astanor‘s fund is a multi-stage tech investor that unites both knowledge and experience of scaling new technology companies with food, cross-sector expertise and agriculture.
Speaking to TechCrunch, Eric Archambeau, co-founder and partner of Astanor Ventures said: “There is now an urgent need for an impact investor like Astanor which is using tech and capital to bring about a revolution in food and farming.”
Archambeau told TechCrunch that the fund will rigorously apply the ideas behind the UN’s seventeen SDGs to ints investments.
“There is a new generation coming on board at LPs and family offices today and new funds understand the imperative this generation now raises. It’s time to stop up and be counted for the future,” said Archambeau.
Within its network, Astanor counts entrepreneurs, impact investors, farmers, chefs, policymakers, food scientists and high-profile sector experts, such as Kathleen Merrigan, Professor in the School of Sustainability and Executive Director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University (an Astanor Venture Partner).
The background opportunities to shift the economy are, by now, obvious. Multiple studies show there are booming greenhouse gas emissions and some 70% of the world’s freshwater resources are consumed by agriculture. The earth’s soil is degrading (fertile soil is being lost at rate of 24bn tonnes a year. Food waste is a huge issue and some 40% of food goes to waste); most fruit or vegetable has 15% less nutrients than it did in 1950.
Since its founding in 2017, Astanor has invested in more than 20 European and US startups that are working to accelerate regenerative agriculture, innovate food production techniques and farming, as well as promote food culture and the enjoyment of food.
Portfolio companies include French insect farming pioneer Ϋnsect, in which Astanor is the lead investor; Infarm, the Berlin -based on-demand vertical farming company; La Ruche Qui dit Oui, a French farm to table supplier; and Notpla, a UK-based company seeking to eliminate plastics by creating a highly functional packaging material from seaweed. California food waste reduction company Apee created plant-based protection for fresh fruit and vegetables, allowing produce to stay fresh twice as long as without it.
In a deal that has potentially big implications for the sustainability of consumer packaged goods, biomaterial manufacturing technology developer Genomatica and the massive nylon material manufacturer Aquafil have partnered on a new demonstration scale facility.
Nylon-6 is used to make everything from toothbrush bristles to pantyhose and industrial materials like carpeting and other heavy-duty fabrics.
The material will be used to develop renewable products and showcase goods that can be brought to market as more companies look to clean up their supply chains and make products that have fewer negative consequences for the environment at the end of their life.
The deal is a 50-fold expansion of previous production levels for Genomatica and represents a significant expansion of Genomatica’s capabilities.
The textile industry is a $960 billion business, and it’s one of the most polluting in the world — both in terms of chemical treatments and greenhouse gas emissions. According to data cited by the World Economic Forum, the textile industry accounts for 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per-year — nearly as much as the auto industry. Nylon production alone is responsible for about 60 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, according to the companies.
The multi-year agreement with European-based Aquafil expands on the two companies’ existing relationship. Earlier this year the two companies produced the first ton of bio-nylon-6 precursor material at a pilot scale. Now, the move to a demonstration scale plant will give Genomatica the ability to move ahead with supply agreements to certain brand partners.
Clothing maker Far Eastern New Century uses Genomatica’s products in its clothes, and other partnerships are in the works, the company said.
“Bio-nylon is positioned to replace a material that’s used in millions of applications every day,” said Christophe Schilling, Genomatica CEO. “Our research shows that despite health and economic turmoil, 56% of Americans still want brands to prioritize sustainability. With this scale, Genomatica is offering our brand partners a key way to meet their sustainability objectives, differentiate themselves, and meet surging consumer demand.”
Aquafil is building the plant in Slovenia, where the Genomatica biological precursor material will be converted into bio-nylon-6 yarns, films and engineered plastics.
AMP Robotics, the manufacturer of robotic recycling systems, has received its largest purchase order from the publicly traded North American waste handling company, Waste Connections.
The order, for 24 machine learning enabled robotic recycling systems, will be used on container, fiber and residue lines across numerous materials recovery facilities, the company said.
The AMP technology can be used to recover plastics, cardboard, paper, cans, cartons and many other containers and packaging types reclaimed for raw material processing.
The tech can tell the difference between high-density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene. The robots can also sort for color, clarity, opacity and shapes like lids, tubs, clamshells, and cups — the robots can even identify the brands on packaging.
So far, AMP’s robots have been deployed in North America, Asia, and Europe with recent installations in Spain, and across the US in California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
In January, before the pandemic began, AMP Robotics worked with its investor, Sidewalk Labs on a pilot program that would provide residents of a single apartment building representing 250 units in Toronto with detailed information about their recycling habits.
Working with the building and a waste hauler, Sidewalk Labs would transport the waste to a Canada Fibers material recovery facility where trash will be sorted by both Canada Fibers employees and AMP Robotics. Once the waste is categorized, sorted, and recorded Sidewalk will communicate with residents of the building about how they’re doing in their recycling efforts.
Sidewalk says that the tips will be communicated through email, an online portal, and signage throughout the building every two weeks over a three-month period.
For residents, it was an opportunity to have a better handle on what they can and can’t recycle and Sidewalk Labs is betting that the information will help residents improve their habits. And for folks who don’t want their trash to be monitored and sorted, they could opt out of the program.
Recyclers like Waste Connections should welcome the commercialization of robots tackling industry problems. Their once-stable business has been turned on its head by trade wars and low unemployment. About two years ago, China decided it would no longer serve as the world’s garbage dump and put strict standards in place for the kinds of raw materials it would be willing to receive from other countries. The result has been higher costs at recycling facilities, which actually are now required to sort their garbage more effectively.
At the same time, low unemployment rates are putting the squeeze on labor availability at facilities where humans are basically required to hand-sort garbage into recyclable materials and trash.
AMP Robotics is backed by Sequoia Capital, BV, Closed Loop Partners, Congruent Ventures and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, a spin-out from Alphabet that invests in technologies and new infrastructure projects.
Where do CDs go to die?
The United States is using more plastic than ever, and waste exported for recycling is often mishandled, according to a new study.
A few years back, it looked like plastic recycling was set to become a key part of a sustainable future. Then, the price of fossil fuels plunged, making it cheaper to manufacture new plastics. Then China essentially stopped importing recycled plastics for use in manufacturing. With that, the bottom dropped out of plastic recycling, and the best thing you could say for most plastics is that they sequestered the carbon they were made of.
The absence of a market for recycled plastics, however, has also inspired researchers to look at other ways of using them. Two papers this week have looked into processes that enable “upcycling,” or converting the plastics into materials that can be more valuable than the freshly made plastics themselves.
Make me some nanotubes
The first paper, done by an international collaboration, actually obtained the plastics it tested from a supermarket chain, so we know it works on relevant materials. The upcycling it describes also has the advantage of working with very cheap, iron-based catalysts. Normally, to break down plastics, catalysts and the plastics are heated together. But in this case, the researchers simply mixed the catalyst and ground up plastics and heated the iron using microwaves.
Morrisons, John Lewis and Waitrose said they would not be using glitter in their holiday products this year. Does that really help the environment?
New research shows that the quantity of fragments embedded in the sea floor far exceeds the plastic floating on the ocean’s surface.
The bill, which would make the state the first to ban single-use paper bags at supermarkets, would also ban single-use plastic bags in stores and restaurants.
Leather goods made of fungi are versatile and sustainable, a new study finds.
Brooklyn-based EV startup Taform unveiled its Luna electric motorcycle in New York last week—a model designed for an audience that may not actually like motorcycles.
Tarform’s first street legal entrant, the Luna, starts at $24,000, does 0-60 mph in 3.8 seconds, has a city range of 120 miles, top-speed of 120 mph, and charges to 80% in 50 minutes—according to company specs.
The model was hatched out of the company’s mission to meld aesthetic design and craftsmanship to environmental sustainability in two-wheeled electric vehicles.
To that end, the Luna incorporates a number of unique, eco-design features. The bodywork is made from a flax seed weave and the overall motorcycle engineering avoids use of plastics. The Luna’s seat upholstery is made out of biodegradable vegan leather. Tarform is also testing methods to avoid paints and primers on its motorcycles, instead using a mono-material infused with algae and iron based metallic pigments.
The company was founded by Swede Taras Kravtchouk—an industrial design specialist, former startup head, and passionate motorcyclist. The Luna launch follows the debut of two concept e-motos in 2018.
On Tarform’s target market, he explained the startup hopes to attract those who may be turned off by the very things that have turned people on to motorcycling over the last 50 years—namely gas, chrome, noise, and fumes.
“It’s more for people who want a custom bike and the techies: people who wanted to have a motorcycle but didn’t want to be associated with the whole stigmatized motorcycle lifestyle,” Kravtchouk told TechCrunch.
Tarform enters the EV arena with competition from several e-moto startups—and on OEM—that are attempting to convert gas riders to electric and attract a younger generation to motorcycling.
One of the leaders is California company Zero Motorcycles, with 200 dealers worldwide. Zero introduced a its $19,000 SR/F in 2019, with a 161-mile city range, one-hour charge capability and a top speed of 124 mph. Italy’s Energica is expanding distribution of its high-performance e-motos in the U.S.
In 2020, Harley Davidson became the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-motorcycle for sale in the U.S., the $29,000 LiveWire.
And Canadian startup Damon Motors debuted its 200 mph, $24,000 Hypersport this year, which offers proprietary safety and ergonomics tech for adjustable riding positions and blind-spot detection.
On how Tarform plans to compete with these e-motorcycle players, Kravtchouk explained that’s not the company’s priority. “We’re not even close in production to Zero or the other big guys, but that’s not our intention. Think of the [Luna] as a custom production bike,” he said.
“We did not set out to build a bike that is fastest or has the longest range,” Kravtchouk added. “We set out to build a bike that completely revises the manufacturing and supply chain of e-motorcycles in a way where we ethically source our materials and create an ethical supply-chain.”
For this mission, Tarform has obtained funding from several family offices and angel investors, including LA based M13. The Brooklyn based e-motorcycle company is taking pre-orders on its new Luna and pursuing a Series-A funding round for 2021, according to CEO Taras Kravtchouk.
Faced with plunging profits and a climate crisis that threatens fossil fuels, the industry is demanding a trade deal that weakens Kenya’s rules on plastics and on imports of American trash.
Those trays that macarons come in? Plaxall makes them. But since the pandemic, it has pivoted to medical face shields. It’s not the first time the family business has done its patriotic duty.
They’re on beaches, in parking lots and on sidewalks. You probably won’t catch the coronavirus from a discarded mask, but the litter poses a risk to the environment.
A new study found plentiful evidence of these tiny particles in dust in the nation’s most remote places.
There’s “no nook or cranny” on the planet where it doesn’t end up, the lead researcher on a new study said.
London-based Greyparrot, which uses computer vision AI to scale efficient processing of recycling, has bagged £1.825 million (~$2.2M) in seed funding, topping up the $1.2M in pre-seed funding it had raised previously. The latest round is led by early stage European industrial tech investor Speedinvest, with participation from UK-based early stage b2b investor, Force Over Mass.
The 2019 founded startup — and TechCrunch Disrupt SF battlefield alum — has trained a series of machine learning models to recognize different types of waste, such as glass, paper, cardboard, newspapers, cans and different types of plastics, in order to make sorting recycling more efficient, applying digitization and automation to the waste management industry.
Greyparrot points out that some 60% of the 2BN tonnes of solid waste produced globally each year ends up in open dumps and landfill, causing major environmental impact. While global recycling rates are just 14% — a consequence of inefficient recycling systems, rising labour costs, and strict quality requirements imposed on recycled material. Hence the major opportunity the team has lit on for applying waste recognition software to boost recycling efficiency, reduce impurities and support scalability.
By embedding their hardware agnostic software into industrial recycling processes Greyparrot says it can offer real-time analysis on all waste flows, thereby increasing efficiency while enabling a facility to provide quality guarantee to buyers, mitigating against risk.
Currently less than 1% of waste is monitored and audited, per the startup, given the expensive involved in doing those tasks manually. So this is an application of AI that’s not so much taking over a human job as doing something humans essentially don’t bother with, to the detriment of the environment and its resources.
Greyparrot’s first product is an Automated Waste Monitoring System which is currently deployed on moving conveyor belts in sorting facilities to measure large waste flows — automating the identification of different types of waste, as well as providing composition information and analytics to help facilities increase recycling rates.
It partnered with ACI, the largest recycling system integrator in South Korea, to work on early product-market fit. It says the new funding will be used to further develop its product and scale across global markets. It’s also collaborating with suppliers of next-gen systems such as smart bins and sorting robots to integrate its software.
“One of the key problems we are solving is the lack of data,” said Mikela Druckman, co-founder & CEO of Greyparrot in a statement. “We see increasing demand from consumers, brands, governments and waste managers for better insights to transition to a more circular economy. There is an urgent opportunity to optimise waste management with further digitisation and automation using deep learning.”
“Waste is not only a massive market — it builds up to a global crisis. With an increase in both world population and per capita consumption, waste management is critical to sustaining our way of living. Greyparrot’s solution has proven to bring down recycling costs and help plants recover more waste. Ultimately it unlocks the value of waste and creates a measurable impact for the environment,” added Marie-Hélène Ametsreiter, lead partner at Speedinvest Industry, in another statement.
Greyparrot is sitting pretty in another aspect — aligning with several strategic areas of focus for the European Union, which has made digitization of legacy industries, industrial data sharing, investment in AI, plus a green transition to a circular economy core planks of its policy plan for the next five+ years. Just yesterday the Commission announced a €750BN pan-EU support proposal to feed such transitions as part of a wider coronavirus recovery plan for the trading bloc.
Daniel Carraway spent his entire career working in paper and bioplastics.
The serial entrepreneur began his career at International Paper working in their research division before founding two previous companies which became cornerstones of the bioplastics industry. His latest venture, RWDC Industries, has raised $133 million in a recent financing to build a new sustainable manufacturing juggernaut in the small city of Athens, Ga.
With offices in Athens and Singapore, RWDC is the fruit of a partnership between Carraway and Roland Wee, an engineer with decades of experience in the chemicals and construction business across Asia.
The two men met through mutual connections as Carraway sought new opportunities to pursue his longtime vision of commercializing bioplastics. The serial entrepreneur had just stepped away from his work with Meredian Holdings Group and its subsidiary, Danimer Scientific — companies that sprung from work Carraway started at his kitchen table with his wife back in 2004, he said.
In 2019, bioplastics represented a $95 million opportunity according to a report in Market Data Forecast, but the small size of the current market belies how big the opportunity can be, according to Carraway.
RWDC, Danimer, and Kaneka are all pursuing an opportunity to replace plastic packaging, which was a $234.14 billion market, according to GrandViewResearch. It’s that potential market for plastics that has drawn countless companies over the years — including Carraway’s own — to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.
Several of those companies failed. Perhaps the most successful of the early high-flyers was Metabolix, which had a public offering before the financial crisis hit in 2008. That company sold its bioplastics division to CJ CheilJedang for roughly $10 million and pivoted to crop science.
Carraway insists that the market has changed over the last few decades and the time is finally right for biology to supplant chemistry in industrial manufacturing.
“If you look back at the history of new materials development… especially polymers.. There has never been a new polymer that had been invented that didn’t take twenty to thirty years for it to make wide scale adoption,” said Carraway. “When a polymer is first developed it takes a while to get the manufacturing right to get it at wide scale. [And] it takes time for polymer converters to understand how to use a new material… it’s not that technologically it’s not viable it’s about figuring out how to use the new material.”
Scale is important too, said Carraway. “You have to reach a certain critical availability in metric tons available in the global market to create a situation where people can use the new material,” he said.
RWDC can already make about 5,000 tons of PHA and expects to grow its capacity to make half a million tons of material, but that barely scratches the surface of available capacity for traditional plastics. “For the next decade we’re going to be in a mad scramble to grow production capacity because we’re going to be behind the demand curve,” said Carraway.
Industry observers have seen this story before. Because the new material Carraway is talking about isn’t actually all that new. For at least the past twenty years companies have been working on ways to cheaply manufacture polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). The material is produced by the fermentation of oil or sugars and serve as a replacement for the chemicals that are made from cracking ethane (a product of oil processing) to make plastic.
However, as concerns continue to mount over the environmental degradation caused by plastic pollutants and the contributions the plastics industry makes to emissions causing global climate change, the push for replacing plastics with more sustainable products has gained momentum.
Regulations in Europe will ban many single use plastic products next year forcing companies to build out their supply of bioplastic alternatives or abandon the use of plastics altogether.
Market moves like these have the potential to spur the bioplastics industry and shift production into high gear. Carraway said demand hasn’t been effected by the collapse of oil prices which has driven down the costs of chemicals and plastics.
“Even though our materials are initially more expensive… the amount that they cost over the commodities in normal circumstances isn’t that much,” Carraway said. “Every customer we’re working with has asked us to speed up and give them more. No one has said we want to slow down or scale back or change our plans.”
And propelling the industry forward could provide a lift to local economies that have been financially ravaged by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
At least, that’s what Carraway is hoping will happen in Athens, Ga.
The company is using some of the money it raised from international and US-based investors including the Singapore-based venture capital firm Vickers Venture Partners; IKEA’s investment company; a Swiss pension fund; a Northeastern energy provider; and an industrial chemical company owned by Koch Industries to revive an old factory in the city as its new production plant.
RWDC said the new facility will bring in 200 jobs to northeastern Georgia.
“We are excited to see RWDC expand its operations in Athens and add a substantial number of new well-paying jobs,” said Athens-Clarke County Mayor, Kelly Girtz. “Athens is the home of the University of Georgia, and we have a long record of supporting innovation and industry. Like communities across America and the world, we want to see a reduction in plastic pollution, and we have high hopes that RWDC, with the help of the Athens community at their new facility, will be able to solve that problem.”
Ali Amin-Javaheri grew up in the chemicals business.
His father had worked for Iran’s state-owned chemical company and when the family fled the country in the nineteen eighties during the Iran-Iraq war, they first settled in Houston where employers welcomed the senior Amin-Jahaveri’s experience.
Houston in the 80s was dominated by the petrochemicals industry and by the time the family later relocated to Washington State, Amin-Jahaveri was already deeply steeped in a world of covalent bonds, chemical cracking, and the molecular coupling and decoupling of matter.
For the former Texas chemical kid, moving to tech-heavy, rain-soaked Washington, dominated at the time by Microsoft, was a bit of a shock, the founder recalled. But it was the 2000s and everyone was in tech so Amin-Jahaveri figured that’d be his path too.
Those two worlds collided for the young University of Washington graduate in his very first job — his only job before launching his first startup — as a programmer and developer at Chempoint.
“Completely through happenstance I was walking around a certain part of Seattle and I walked by this building and it had all these logos outside the office. I saw this logo for a company called Chempoint and I was instantly intrigued,” Amin-Jahaveri said. “I walked up to the receptionist and asked what they were doing.”
In the summer of 2001, Amazon was an online bookseller a little over seven years old, the dot-com boom hadn’t gone completely bust quite yet and business-to-business marketplaces were a hot investment.
“It was a startup with just a handful of folks,” said Amin-Jahaveri. “There wasn’t a business model in place, but the intent was to build a marketplace for chemicals… The dot-com boom was happening and everything was moving on line and the chemicals industry likely will as well.”
Fifteen years later, Chempoint is one of the last remaining companies in a market that once boasted at least fifteen competitors — and the chemicals industry still doesn’t have a true online marketplace. Until (potentially) now, with the launch of Amin-Jahaveri’s first startup — Knowde.
For the vast majority of Americans, the chemicals industry remains a ubiquitous abstraction. Consumers have a direct relationship with the energy business through the movements of prices at the pump, but the ways in which barrels of oil get converted into the plastics, coatings, films, flavors, fillings, soaps, toothpastes, enamels and unguents that touch everyone’s daily life are a little bit less obvious.
It’s a massive industry. The U.S. accounted for 17% of the global chemicals market in 2017 and that percentage amounted to a staggering $765 billion in sales. Worldwide there are thousands of chemicals companies selling hundreds of different specialty chemicals each and all contributing to a total market worth trillions of dollars.
“The market is $5 trillion,” said Amin-Jahaveri. “Just to be super clear about that.. It’s $5 trillion worth of transactions happening every year.”
It’s no secret that venture capitalists love marketplaces. Replacing physical middlemen with electronic ones offers efficiencies and economies of scale that have a cold logic and avoid the messiness of human contact. For the past twenty years, different entrepreneurs have cropped to tackle creating systems that could connect buyers on one side with sellers on another — and the chemicals industry has been investors’ holy grail since Chempoint made its pitch to the market in 2001.
“The chemicals industry is the most interesting of all of them. It’s the biggest. It’s also the most fragmented,” said Sequoia partner Shaun Maguire. “There were three companies in the world that all did about $90 billion in sales and none of those three companies did more than 1.6% of sales of the entire industry.”
Those kinds of numbers would make any investor’s jaw drop. And several firms tried to make a pitch for the hotly contested financing round for Knowde. Maguire first heard that there looking for funds to pursue the creation of the first true marketplace business for the chemicals industry through a finance associate at Sequoia, Spencer Hemphill.
Hemphill knew an early Knowde investor named Ian Rountree at Cantos Ventures and had heard Rountree talk about the new company. He flagged the potential deal to Maguire and another Sequoia partner. It only took one hour for Maguire to be blown away by Amin-Jahaveri’s pedigree in the industry and his vision for Knowde.
From that initial meeting in September to the close of the company’s $14 million Series A round on March 11 (the day the markets suffered their worst COVID-19-related losses), Maguire was tracking the company’s progress. Other firms in the running for the Knowde deal included big names like General Catalyst, according to people with knowledge of the process.
Sequoia wound up leading the Series A deal for Knowde, which also included previous investors Refactor Capital, 8VC, and Cantos Ventures.
The tipping point for Maguire was the rapid adoption and buy-in from the industry when Knowde flipped the switch on sales in early January.
For at least the past fifty years, the modern chemicals industry has been defined — and in some ways constrained — by its sales pitches. There are specialty manufacturers who have hundreds of chemicals that they’ve made, but the knowledge of what those chemicals can do is often locked inside research labs. The companies rely on distributors, middlemen, and internal sales teams to get the word out, according to Maguire and Amin-Jahaveri.
“The way that things are done is still through field sales teams and product catalogs and brochures and face to face meetings and all that stuff,” said Amin-Jahaveri. “This industry has not evolved as quickly as the rest of the world… And we always knew that something has got to give.”
One selling point for Knowde is that it breaks that logjam, according to investors like Maguire.
“One of the references said that they had a bunch of legacy flavors from the seventies,” Maguire said. “It was a Madagascar Vanilla that none of their sales people had tried to sell for 25 years… By putting them on Knowde the sales numbers had gone up over 1,000%… That company does over $5 billion a year in sales through flavors.”
The change happened as the old guard of executives began aging out of the business, according to Amin-Jahaveri. “Between 2002 and 2012 nothing happened.. There was no VC money thrown at any type chemical company and then it started changing a little bit,” he said. “The first domino was the changing age demographic… these consumer product companies kept getting younger.”
Amin-Jahaveri’s previous company grew to $400 million in revenue selling technology and services to the chemicals industry. It was back-end software and customer relationship tools that the industry had never had and needed if it were to begin the process of joining the digital world. Knowde, according to Amin-Jahaveri, is the next phase of that transition.
“Our plan is to connect the chemical producers directly with the buyers,” Amin-Jahaveri said. “And provide all the plumbing and storefronts necessary to manage these things themselves.”
All that Knowde needed to do was collate the disparate data about what chemicals small manufacturers were making and had in stock and begin listing that information online. That transparency of information used to be more difficult to capture, since companies viewed their product catalog as an extension of their intellectual property — almost a trade secret, according to Amin-Jahaveri.
Once companies began listing products online, Amin-Jahaveri and his team could go to work creating a single, searchable taxonomy that would allow outsiders to find the materials they needed without having to worry about differences in descriptions.
Knowde has broken down the chemicals industry into ten different verticals including: food, pharmaceuticals, personal care, houseware goods, industrial chemicals. The company currently operates in three different verticals and plans to extend into all ten within the year.
Amin-Jahaveri knows that he’s not going to get a meaningful chunk of business from the huge chemical manufacturers like BASF or Dow Chemical that pump out thousands of tons of commodity chemicals, those deals only represent $2 trillion of the total addressable market.
That means another $3 trillion in sales are up for grabs for the company Amin-Jahaveri founded with his partner Woyzeck Krupa.
While the opportunity is huge, the company — like every other new business launching in 2020 — is still trying to do business in the middle of the worst economic collapse in American history. However, Amin-Jahaveri thinks the new economic reality could actually work in Knowde’s favor.
“It’s going to be one more trigger event for these chemical companies that they have to go online,” he said. The personal relationships that drove much of the sales for the chemicals business before have dried up. No more conferences and events means no more opportunities to glad-hand, backslap, and chat over drinks at the hotel bar. So these companies need to find a new way to sell.
Maguire sees another benefit to the movement of chemical catalogs into an online marketplace, and that’s internal transparency within chemical companies.
“Even the biggest companies in the world do not have an internal search feature even for their own chemicals,” said Maguire. “I talked to two of the biggest companies in the world. In the case of one chemist who is a friend of mine. If you are trying to formulate some new concoction how do you find what chemicals you have in the company? If it’s in my division it’s pretty easy.. If I need chemicals from another division… there’s no way to search it right now.”
I see far more research articles than I could possibly write up. This column collects the most interesting of those papers and advances, along with notes on why they may prove important in the world of tech and startups.
This week: one step closer to self-powered on-skin electronics; people dressed as car seats; how to make a search engine for 3D data; and a trio of Earth imaging projects that take on three different types of disasters.
Sweat as biofuel
Monitoring vital signs is a crucial part of healthcare and is a big business across fitness, remote medicine and other industries. Unfortunately, powering devices that are low-profile and last a long time requires a bulky battery or frequent charging is a fundamental challenge. Wearables powered by body movement or other bio-derived sources are an area of much research, and this sweat-powered wireless patch is a major advance.
The device, described in Science Robotics, uses perspiration as both fuel and sampling material; sweat contains chemical signals that can indicate stress, medication uptake, and so on, as well as lactic acid, which can be used in power-generating reactions.
The patch performs this work on a flexible substrate and uses the generated power to transmit its data wirelessly. It’s reliable enough that it was used to control a prosthesis, albeit in limited fashion. The market for devices like this will be enormous and this platform demonstrates a new and interesting direction for researchers to take.
In a small suburb of Melbourne, two entrepreneurs are developing a technology that could mean big changes for the packaging industry.
Stuart Gordon and Mark Appleford are the co-founders of Varden, a company that has developed a process to take the waste material from sugarcane and convert it into a paper-like packaging product with the functional attributes of plastic.
Their technology managed to grab the attention of — and $2.2 million in funding from — Horizons Ventures, the venture capital fund managing the money of Li Ka-shing, one of the world’s wealthiest men.
It’s an opportune time to launch a novel packaging technology, as the European Union has already instituted a ban on single-use plastic items, which will go into effect in 2021. Taking their lead, companies like Nestlé and Walmart have pledged to use only sustainable packaging for products beginning in 2025.
The environmental toll that packaging takes on the earth’s habitats is already a concern for many, and the urgency to find a solution is only mounting with consumers and businesses actually producing more waste in the rush to change consumer behavior and socially distance as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
“I like technologies that focus on carbon reductions,” said Chris Liu, Horizons Ventures’ representative in Australia.
A longtime tech and product executive who had stints at Intel and Fjord, a digital design studio, Liu relocated to Australia recently and has actually taken himself off the grid.
Living in Western Australia, the climate emergency was brought directly to the top of Liu’s mind when the wildfires, which raged through the country, came within two kilometers of his new home.
For Mark Appleford, it wasn’t so much the fires as it was the garbage that kept washing up on the shores of his beloved beaches.
Over beers at a barbecue he began talking to his eventual co-founder, Stuart Gordon, about the environmental problem they’d solve if they had the ability to change things. They settled on plastics.
Working in Appleford’s laundry room they started developing the technology that would become Varden. That early laundry room-work in 2015 led to a small seed round and the company’s long slog to get an initial product in the hands of test customers.
Finagling some time with the New Zealand manufacturer Fisher and Paykel, the two co-founders put together an early prototype of their coffee pods made from sugarcane bagasse, a waste byproduct of the sugar feedstock.
“We worked backwards through customers to supply chain, which led us to material selection, which was something that would allow us to create a product that people understood,” said Gordon.
The production process has evolved to fit inside a 40-foot container that holds the firm’s machine, which takes agricultural waste and converts that waste into packaging.
Instead of using rollers like a paper mill, Varden’s technology uses a thermoform to mold the plant waste into a product that has the same properties as plastic.
It removes a complicated step that’s been essential to the current crop of bioplastics, which use bacteria to convert plant waste into plastic substitutes that are then sold to the industry.
“It looks like paper… you can tear it in half and it sounds like paper when you rip it, and you can throw it in the bin,” said Appleford.
Gordon said that the company’s containers are outperforming commodity based plastics. And the first target for replacement, the founders said, is coffee capsules.
“We went for coffee because it’s the hardest,” said Appleford.
It’s also a huge market, according to the company. Varden estimates there are more than 20 billion coffee pods consumed every year.
With the new money, Varden will begin manufacturing at scale to meet initial demand from pilot customers and is hoping to expand its product line to include medical blister packs in addition to the coffee pods.
“A pilot plant on the products we’re looking at is a pilot plant that can generate 20 million units a year,” said Gordon.
Both men are hoping that their product — and others like it — can usher in a generation of new sustainable packaging materials that are better for the environment at every stage of their life cycle.
“The next generation of packaging will be better… there are plant-based flexibles for your salads, for your potato chips… [But] the next generation of molded packaging is us… bioplastic will ultimately go.”
Plastics have a lot of properties that have made them fixtures of modern societies. They can be molded into any shape we’d like, they’re tough yet flexible, and they come in enough variations that we can tune the chemistry to suit different needs. The problem is that they’re tough enough that they don’t break down on their own, and incinerating them is relatively inefficient. As a result, they’ve collected in our environment as both bulk plastics and the seemingly omnipresent microplastic waste.
For natural materials, breaking down isn’t an issue, as microbes have evolved ways of digesting them to obtain energy or useful chemicals. But many plastics have only been around for decades, and we’re just now seeing organisms that have evolved enzymes to digest them. Figuring they could do one better, researchers in France have engineered an enzyme that can efficiently break down one of the most common forms of plastic. The end result of this reaction is a raw material that can be reused directly to make new plastic bottles.
An unwanted PET
The plastic in question is polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. PET has a variety of uses, including as thin films with very high tensile strength (marketed as mylar). But its most notable use is in plastic drink bottles, which are a major component of environmental plastic waste. First developed in the 1940s, the first living organism that can break down and use the carbon in PET was described in 2016—found in sediment near a plastic recycling facility, naturally.