P | P | P – feat. Polymateria

We caught up with Dr. Florence Huynh, Research and Innovations Manager at Polymateria as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Polymateria have developed the world’s first biodegradation technology for polyolefins in the open environment, engineering cost-effective solutions to the global single-use plastic problem.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Hi Florence, it is great to meet you! Please could you introduce yourself, what Polymateria do, the stage you are at currently, and what makes Polymateria’ s business offering unique?

Florence: Yes, sure; I am Florence, and I am the Research and Innovations Manager at Polymateria. I am a chemical biologist by training, having done my PhD at Cardiff University in chemical biology. After my PhD I was looking into using my expertise in chemistry, biology and engineering to create sustainable technologies and this is how I found Polymateria.

Polymateria is a 6-year-old British company based in London at the Imperial College Innovation Hub and has commercialised time-controlled biotransformation technology for polyolefin plastics. We are currently seeking to raise £20m from industry partners and players in a series B funding round. Polymateria designed a proprietary drop-in masterbatch that can be added to plastics during their manufacturing process. These products can be used as any standard plastic product; it will have the same colour, physical properties, and can be recycled within their service-life. However, what is unique is that if the product winds up in the natural environment, our biotransformation technology inside will quickly activate and trigger a series of chemical reactions within the polymer backbone and transform the plastic into a bioavailable wax which will then biodegrade within 2 years without creating any microplastic during the process.

Polymateria are such an exciting company; I had no idea such a thing could be done to solve the plastic pollution problem. It is incredible and amazing research and development! It is so important, especially as they have now found microplastics in human blood.

Florence: Nano plastics could enter cell walls and the fact that they could also potentially carry chemicals is scary. We do not know the extent and the impact of this on humans yet!

Please could you share the origin story behind Polymateria?

Florence: Yes, sure. Polymateria was founded back in 2015 in collaboration with Imperial College with the mission to help tackle the global crisis of plastic pollution. In 2016, a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation was published and estimated that 78 million tonnes of plastic had been produced in 2015 from the packaging industry alone. Close to 1/3 of these ended up in the natural environment and 8 million tonnes made their way from land into the ocean.

The idea was to develop a unique product for polyolefin plastics that is one, biodegradable on land to stop them from going into the ocean, and two, that is also recyclable so conforms to the 3 R’s of reduce, re-use and recycle. When you look back 6 years ago, there were 2 camps claiming biodegradation: – one was saying we can biodegrade plastics, but they were effectively just creating microplastics. The other one was also claiming biodegradation but in a particular setting you called industrial composting. In the UK, there is less than 5% of the population that uses those types of facilities. So, one was not credible and the other one was not scalable. The founders of Polymateria briefed the team and wanted to come up with a solution that was credible, scalable, and worked with the existing value chain. We have worked from the beginning with experts from Imperial College in this field to create this new technology.

I have heard of companies working with microbes that can consume plastic once it has been produced. How did you identify an additive that is then present throughout the lifecycle of the plastic rather than focusing on the end of life for plastic products?

Florence: When you say microbes that are able to digest plastic, these are microbes that have been found in particular settings, for example in landfill sites. In landfill sites, they are found because microbes are able to evolve naturally and adapt to their environment. Microbes you find in that particular landfill, you will not find somewhere else. Discovering these microbes is a breakthrough but isn’t a solution as it is not scalable.

The real solution was to create something that is biodegradable if it ends up in the natural environment because this is where 1/3 of packaging waste ends up. We have a team of chemists, biologists, polymer scientists, and researchers at Imperial College who came up with a solution, a technology that is able to biotransform plastic into a wax that can be identified as a food source by microbes. This was the key to making it work. If you look at other technologies that have claimed they can degrade plastic, they’re actually creating microplastics. This is because they were not able to create something that was able to attack one of the cornerstones of what makes a plastic so durable, its crystallinity. With our additive, we are able to attack both the amorphous and crystalline part of the plastic and by doing so transform the plastic into a bioavailable wax in a homogeneous manner. The technology inside is able to break down the polymer chains into very small molecules. while adding carbonyl functions on it; these can serve as anchor points to microbes. Altogether the microbes, can consume the wax and use it for their metabolism.

The technicalities are incredible! Speaking of people, could you share some challenges you have faced, are facing or are anticipating around scaling and growing your team? Plus, do you have any top tips for team building you would like to share with similar businesses?

Florence: Yes, building trust in the industry and with stakeholders can only be overcome through robust science; by opening up the evidence and the data that you can see on our website. Everything is built on trust and the foundations of this business are built on integrity and diversity. What we look for and celebrate is when people speak up when something is wrong, whether that is with the science or the culture of the business. This is the key way of repairing the damage that previous technologies did to the sector by effectively greenwashing their technology as a solution when it didn’t work.

Moving to product, what has been your approach to product market fit or sales cycles?

Florence: The first phase of our business was the science and data which culminated in the creation of a new British standard; PAS 9017. You then have the product phase which is the phase we are in now. It is all related to the quality of the product, so what we are trying to do with all of our partners is to get something that is stable, that is repeatable and will work. We understand the biodegradation aspect better than anyone else, our customers know their product better than anyone else – what does it really need to do in the world – what is its functional requirements and making sure that is factored in and deliverable at scale. So it is that partnership that is essential to understand and implement a product fit for market and sales.

Could you share some challenges and barriers you have had to overcome when creating your product and as a business?

Florence: I would say quality and again, it is all about understanding details. Anyone can create a prototype, but actually producing millions of tonnes repeatedly at scale introduces a whole new level repeatability around product and scalability which means you have to create that trust with your customer to understand their requirements and make sure their technology is meeting their requirements.

Investment can often be a challenge for start-up and scale-ups; do you have any advice for other companies looking to seek investment?

Florence: What you need is a patient capital, you need people who are on the journey with you for 6-7 years and fully understand it takes time.

Thank you for your time, Florence!

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