Polymateria - biotransforming plastics

Plastic pollution and the problems it causes have captured the world’s attention in recent years. From shopping bags caught in hedgerows, to accumulations of micro plastics in marine species, governments and businesses around the world have introduced new policies and legislation to deal with these issues: bans on drinking straws and tariffs of 5 pence on plastic shopping bags immediately come to mind.

Polymateria, a UK-based business with a focus on providing circular solutions to plastic pollution, has developed a new suite of drop-in technologies called biotransformation that deals with plastic pollution. Polymateria was the first company to join the Imperial White City Incubator when it opened its doors in October 2016, and has since grown rapidly, appointed new CEO Niall Dunne, bringing its first product to market in March 2018.

 Polymateria CEO Niall Dunne (centre) with Anca and Gavin from Imperial Innovations

Polymateria CEO Niall Dunne (centre) with Anca and Gavin from Imperial Innovations

“Polymateria is looking to deal with what we call ‘fugitive’ plastic,” Niall tells me when we meet for coffee in the sleek, glass-fronted I-HUB building at the White City Campus. He brings his own cup with him. “That’s plastic which mainly comes from single-use food-safe packaging and which gets into the natural environment through littering and failures in the recycling chain.”

Mostly composed of polypropylene, polyethylene and polyester, these are widely recycled and recyclable plastics, but that doesn’t stop them getting out into the natural environment. “Polymateria is focused on biodegradation,” says Niall, “so when someone litters, or there’s a problem in a recycling facility, or a fox knocks over a bin, our technology can still remove these plastics from the environment.”

The company approaches this from two directions, making chemical and biological changes to plastic resins that allow them to be broken down through natural processes into their smallest component parts – “small enough that a bacterium could digest it,” says Niall. This comes from understanding the chemistry of plastics and their use in the market today, and also from knowing how to draw in “natural agents of change – fungi, bacteria, UV light and moisture. All of these play a role in biodegradation, but with standard production methods, when bacteria see a bit of plastic they don’t know what to do with it. We’ve learnt how to insert prebiotics into plastics and combining this with the chemical structure break-down that we also induce, plastics containing our technology can be biodegraded by the environment, avoiding any trace of microplastics.”

 Polymateria takes a deep science approach to its mission to biotransform plastics

Polymateria takes a deep science approach to its mission to biotransform plastics

Polymateria’s location at the Imperial White City Incubator, situated at the heart of the Imperial College ecosystem, provides it with access to the scientific excellence it requires. “We sponsor PhD students at Imperial, and they bring new perspectives and new approaches into our research,” says Niall. “It’s a vibrant environment, and we’ve benefitted from it. We’re looking to work with the best thinking in the world, and it’s great that we can find that 50 or 100 metres from our office!”

The Incubator also plays a key role when the company talks to customers, according to Niall. “Customers love coming here. We’ve brought some of the biggest brands in the world to the Incubator, and I think one of the reasons that they’ve engaged deeply with Polymateria is not just that we’re doing something different and special, but because this place is different and special too.”  

Moving back to coffee cups, I ask about the fact that a lot of companies claim that their cups or packaging are biodegradable. Niall agrees that there is a lot of confusion about the language used to describe plastics and packaging, and Polymateria is working closely with standards bodies and international brands, open-sourcing their testing methods to try and improve claims and certification and simplify what can be communicated to consumers. A biodegradable coffee cup, he says, can be put in an industrial composting facility, but a customer can’t put it in their compost heap. “Just because it says it’s biodegradable, it doesn’t mean it’s like an apple core.”

Polymateria’s technologies solve this issue, and the idea of apple cores comes up a lot in their discussions with customers. “Among the materials we give to customers is a comparison between our materials and microplastic,” Niall explains. “In all of our R&D we’re aiming and striving for the most effective technology possible for our products to be biodegraded faster. The ideal goal would be as fast as an apple core, regardless of whether it’s on a grass verge or in a compost heap. This is a massive challenge, but our aim is to bring this kind of revolutionary innovative thinking to commodity plastics, in a way that is affordable and scalable.”

Niall sees Polymateria as contributing within a shifting global approach to plastic pollution. “Everyone hopes there might be a silver bullet, but there isn’t one for plastics. It’s going to take a lot of collaboration, among all parties – those who produce plastic, those who use it, and governments and regulators as well.” He mentions the fact that many consumer brands have signed up to long-reaching and ambitious recycling targets – unquestionably a good thing – but while they’re working to reach those, the situation remains that 30% of the plastics produced in a year get released into the natural environment. “So, if you make a lot of plastic bottles and you’ve signed up to a recycling target, you’re still dealing with the fact that customers are going to see your bottles get pulled out of the sea, or littered in national parks.”

Polymateria’s ambition is to develop the ‘new normal’ for plastic resins, so that when littering happens, the impact on the natural environment is significantly reduced. “You still need recycling. You still need the three ‘Rs’ of reduce, reuse and recycle,” Niall tells me. “But a technology approach that can address the holes in that system can be transformational.”  

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If you would like to get involved with Polymateria, the company is currently hiring and actively recruiting a laboratory technician with background in analytical chemistry to work on testing new iterations of its Biotransformation technology. The role will be based at Polymateria’s laboratories at the Imperial Incubator and be supervised by their VP of Innovations, Dr. Chris Wallis. If you would like to apply please send CV along with one-page application in writing with how you believe you meet the criteria to cp@polymateria.com by 11th January 2019.


 

AlgiKnit Closes $2.2M Seed Round to Develop Kelp-Derived Yarn

NYC biomaterials company spins bio-derived yarn from kelp. Addressing the overabundance of everlasting plastics, AlgiKnit is creating the next generation of sustainable wearable materials, produced within a closed-loop life cycle.

Today AlgiKnit, a biomaterials company developing yarn spun from kelp, announced a $2.2 million Series Seed round of financing led by Horizons Ventures and including SOSV.

The funding will propel the company through the next steps of development, towards manufacturing and commercialization of their bio-derived yarn.

To create an alternative to conventional textiles, AlgiKnit spins yarn from a combination of algae and plant biopolymers, primarily including kelp, one of the fastest growing organisms on earth. This seaweed absorbs the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide at a rate up to five times faster than land-based plants and improves marine habitats. By using a non-toxic wet-spinning process, the company transforms these sustainable biopolymers into a strong, hypoallergenic and compostable yarn. When products made from AlgiKnit’s yarn are worn out, they can be bio-recycled and reclaimed for the next generation of products.

“Our goal at AlgiKnit is to make fashion synonymous with sustainability.” Said Aaron Nesser, Co-Founder and CEO of AlgiKnit. “AlgiKnit Yarn sidesteps the harmful impacts of conventional fibers, the result is a material with exceptional sustainability performance, which does not contribute to microfiber or microplastic pollution. We’re exceptionally pleased to be working with such visionary partners.”

Bart Swanson, Advisor to Horizons Ventures shared, "Climate change affects everyone. We are excited that Algiknit’s biomaterials will give a sustainable option to the textile and fiber industry."

Horizons Ventures, the private investment arm of Mr. Li Ka-shing, is a leading investor in some of the world’s most innovative companies and disruptive technologies including Facebook, Waze, Spotify, Siri, Improbable, and Impossible Foods.

AlgiKnit Inc. was founded in 2017 with a mission to transform the fashion industry, utilizing science and design to create new, sustainable materials that fit into a circular economy.

'Helping others through images': Photojournalism Hub launches at White City

by George Hope

A new community-led Photojournalism Hub launched at Imperial’s White City Incubator this week.

The not-for-profit Hub, founded by local resident Cinzia D’Ambrosi, aims to generate concrete positive outcomes for vulnerable communities and individuals through the tool of photojournalism, whilst supporting the development and the dissemination of photojournalism work.

The Hub, which is supported by Hammersmith United Charities, will engage local people and those further afield in important contemporary social justice issues through photography exhibitions, online investigative visual and written content, debates, community-led forums, training and research.

The event was launched at Imperial’s White City Incubator by local Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter, who described photojournalism as a “fantastic way of connecting people and telling truths.”

Local freelance journalist Cinzia D’Ambrosi, who founded the Photojournalism Hub, has spent a number of years capturing the plight of refugees with the aim of influencing policy-makers. “People connect more with images – they show what’s really happening,” said Cinzia. “Photography has the power and leverage to make change - I always use my work to push for changes in some sort of positive way.”

Cinzia is working on several projects in White City, which is how she met Priya Pallan, Community Engagement Manager in the Academic Partnerships division at Imperial.

Priya introduced Cinzia to Anca Mandruleanu, Entrepreneurial Programmes Manager at Imperial Innovations. Anca has been supporting Cinzia and the Photojournalism Hub through business advice and mentoring. Anca said: “It has been a pleasure to support Cinzia on her ambitious journey of building this new project and to see how much interest the launch event hosted by the Imperial White City Incubator has raised within the local community and beyond.”

Cinzia is exploring further opportunities to work with the College. Speaking at the launch, she said: “I would like to thank Imperial College London for giving us the space here – we are really grateful to them.”

Through the Photojournalism Hub, Cinzia is pioneering a new concept, ‘Citizen Visual Journalism’, which aims to help local community groups and individuals learn to tell their own stories and to raise their own social justice issues through high quality images. This will help them address the very people who can make policy change, Cinzia explained: “It’s about helping others through images and storytelling.”

Alongside Ms D’Ambrosi and Mr Slaughter MP, the event also hosted talks from other local activists. Daniel Renwick, a videographer and journalist, presented his film “Failed by the State”, made four months after the fire at Grenfell Tower, and narrated by prominent community member Ish, who was born in Grenfell Tower.

Other speakers included Katie Webb, Co-Director of the Writers’ Union of Italy (FUIS), presenting the work of photographers and authors addressing human rights injustices from the Middle East and North Africa region, and David Hoffman, who has been a photojournalist since the 1970s and documents the reality of injustice, the frequent oppression of the state and its often tragic consequences.

This is just the beginning for Cinzia, who ultimately wants her project to go global. “Once you start something you believe in,” claimed Cinzia, “you get amazing support from people. Everyone is keen on helping in one way or another.”

IWCI Entrepreneur one of MIT’s Innovators Under 35

Henrik Hagemann has been featured in MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 Europe list for his work on CustoMem.

The Imperial alumnus founded CustoMem in 2015 to develop new solutions in wastewater treatment. The startup’s lead product, CustoMem Granular Media, combines biological and selective material which can be customised for different contaminants. In tests, CGM has been ten times more efficient in filtering out Polyfluoroalkyl—an industrial pollutant—at lower costs when compared to existing solutions.

Hagemman and the rest of the CustoMem team joined the Incubator through their participation in the Venture Catalyst Challenge, later staying on to continue developing the business and product. Earlier this year, the company was awarded a €1.4 million grant in the EU’s highly competitive Horizon 2020 SME Instrument scheme. This allowed CustoMem to increase its operations and move from the IWCI’s shared lab space to its own facilities.

IWCI hosts Startup Bootcamp

On 14th September, the Imperial White City hosted Startup Bootcamp, an accelerator programme that supports early-stage tech companies in growing and developing their emerging technologies and innovations. Each programme focuses on an industry and gives the opportunity for an unparalleled level of support from industry professionals.

This edition was led by Trevor Townsend, CEO at Startup Bootcamp Australia and focused on smart energy with 10 participating companies split into two sessions. The format of the programme allowed the companies to give 5-minute pitch presentations on their most up-to-date development followed by a roundtable discussion.

Trevor Townsend stated that “It was great to partner with the Imperial White City Incubator for our FastTrack event in London. The standard of the startups that we met with was exceptional and certainly relevant to our clean energy theme. The FastTrack event is all about helping the startups shape their business, we were fortunate to have some great mentors along on the day, including Graham Hewson and Anca Mandruleanu from the White City Incubator.  We look forward to building the relationship with the Imperial White City Incubator as part of a global network on entrepreneurship and innovation.”

The participating companies were:

  • Advizzo: customer engagement software for water, electricity and gas utility

  • Parking Energy: scalable and affordable EV Infrastructure car charging for the real estate sector and parking operators

  • Smart Green Charge: clean electric infrastructure integrated on motorways

  • LighFi: Wi-Fi motion sensors to safe electricity

  • SciBreak: supergrip enabling solutions

  • Go to U: quick and easy access to a reliable charging network for every EV driver

  • Bookmycharge: peer-to-peer website which brings together those people with EVs of all types looking for a charging point

  • Utilidex: simple, clever technology to inspire smarter, more efficient, more transparent ways of working in energy and finance

RebelBio launches new cohort hosted at the IWCI

RebelBio has brought together seven new companies for its Cohort VI, the second to be hosted at the Imperial White City Incubator.

Following the successful collaboration between RebelBio and the IWCI which began in January this year, the world's first life sciences accelerator has decided to bring in a second group of companies to Imperial's Translation & Innovation Hub.

The companies in Cohort VI are working on a wide range of issues, from sustainability in the food sector to artificial intelligence & machine learning, through neurodegenerative disease and the microbiome. The founders, a mix of students, academics, doctors, and entrepreneurs, will undergo RebelBio's three-month-long training programme, while also being able to access support provided by the IWCI's experienced team.


The companies of RebelBio's Cohort VI

Biomathematica - developing digital microbes (computer simulations of the human gut microbiome) to support personalised medicine. 

OmProbiotics - using probiotics for a new path to sinus health.

Because Animals - a novel, environmentally-firendly approach to pet food.

Machine Medicine - video capture, storage and analysis for better diagnostics.

Cellari - applying AI to complex bioimaging tasks.

MicroSpray Technologies - developing a spray-manufacturing system able to fine tune particle size.

DropGenie - democatrising gene editing with microfluidics.

 The Cohort VI CEOs sit with  RebelBio’s Bill Liao

The Cohort VI CEOs sit with  RebelBio’s Bill Liao