As high school seniors in their hometown of Vancouver, Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao had some big questions -- and answers -- for a planet that produces enough plastic every year to circle itself in Saran wrap four times over.
Yao recently graduated from the University of Toronto and Wang is finishing her senior year at the University of Pennsylvania
, majoring in Biology. Together they founded BioCellection
. Now their team (which also includes Alexander Simafranca, Eric Friedman and Daniel Chapman) is the first undergraduate team ever to take the $30,000 grand prize at Wharton’s annual Business Plan Competition
. And that's only the beginning: They also took home the Wharton Social Impact Prize, the Gloekner Undergraduate Award, the Michelson People’s Choice Award and the Committee Award for Most "Wow Factor." No other single team has ever taken five prizes in the competition.
Wang and Yao began studying riverside soil samples back in high school. They wanted to find out what the ecosystem itself might be doing to survive pollution from plastics. Traditional plastic products are made from fossil fuels, which come from carbon. Humans run on carbon, too -- our source is glucose.
"Could there be bacteria that have evolved with plastic chemicals as their carbon source?" Wang recalls wondering. "The answer is yes…Nature is very much evolving to recover itself. There is a solution in this biology, it just needs to be tapped into. Potentially this could be a large-scale commercial technology used to clean our drinking water."
Wang and Yao focused on how bacteria could be harnessed to break down potentially carcinogenic components of some plastics (like phthalates) that aren’t otherwise biodegradable. Their work won them the 2012 National Commercialization Award at Canada’s Sanofi BioGENEius
Challenge and led to a popular 2013 TED talk
In the labs at Penn, that work grew into BioCellection.
"Instead of tackling derivatives or additives in plastic, we’re [now] tackling the polymer of the plastic itself," explains Wang. "What if we can take this really big problem of the polymer, and try to solve it on a modular basis?"
BioCellection developed a way to engineer bacteria that produce an enzyme which, when combined with problem plastics in a proprietary portable chemical process, can convert that plastic into water and carbon dioxide. This patent-pending technology is still about two years away from the field, but its future application in plastic remediation at landfills, industrial sites, oceans and beaches could be tremendous, with annual revenue projected to reach $100 million by 2020.
A little further down the road in their business model, BioCellection hopes to launch a centralized processing plant that will use this enzyme to convert discarded plastics into a bio-surfactant necessary for textile manufacturing. With the help of collaborator Parley for the Oceans
-- which is helping BioCellection connect to brands like Adidas that want to incorporate recycled plastic into their products -- the company hopes to sell this "upcycled" surfactant at $300/kg. It’s an estimated $42 billion market.
The issue of used plastics is a global problem: Because current recycling methods don’t generate enough revenue, over 90 percent of our cast-off plastics (even those going for recycling) end up in landfills, or incinerated, which compounds pollution.
According to the company, "We can’t expect to change consumer habits overnight or integrate new materials immediately. It’s time to tackle the plastic pollution that currently exists, and that we’re continuing to produce, to save marine wildlife, keep the planet’s food chain intact, and protect human health."
Besides the $54,000 in total prize money from Wharton, BioCellection has earned $90,000 in grants and $240,000 in investment. The company is relocating to the San Jose BioCube
in June 2016 for further development.
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Miranda Wang, BioCellection