Despite the (almost) fifty year age gap between the co-founders, Jacob Nathan and Douglas Kell came together over a shared interest: the increase in plastic waste, and the potential impacts for the planet. While completing his studies, Jacob Nathan wrote a paper on how plastics which were typically hard to recycle could actually be broken down by enzymes. He went online to see if there was a scientist willing to look into this with him, where he came across Douglas Kell, who was a professor of systems biology. Together, they founded their own company: Epoch Biodesign.
This was three years ago, and the duo have now managed to raise $11m in funding, with the round led by Lower Carbon Capital.
Previous work completed by Douglas Kell focused on the development of tools which could engineer their own enzymes for individual uses. Now, Epoch Biodesign is using the tools which Kell created to manufacture enzymes which can successfully break down plastic waste. Jacob Nathan describes the process as being similar to that of manufacturing beer, where the enzyme is brewed in place of the ethanol.
The team at Epoch Biodesign have successfully created this molecule, however they are now working out how to do it both quickly and economically. The company is trying to target plastics which currently cannot be recycled, including flexible firms and those which are used for agricultural purposes.
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The work done by Epoch Biodesign is part of an industry which is becoming increasingly more popular, with investors and scientists becoming excited about the potential for the future: the synthetic biology industry. Synthetic biology is based on redesigning organisms which can then be brewed for other uses. Examples of this include cultivated meat and precision fermentation, where a brewing process allows for the production of milk which is similar to cows milk.
Output from the enzyme creation process can also be useful for the creation of new materials such as adhesive products, fertilisers and even multi-use chemicals. The plan for Epoch Biodesign is to successfully construct the world’s first plastic eating plant, which would reduce waste created by plastic which cannot be recycled. Many companies currently pay to send their non-recyclable waste to incineration or landfill facilities, which is neither economical nor beneficial for the planet. Epoch Biodesign wants to create products which are cheaper than paying for landfill, incentivising companies to feed their plastic to plants. The team are also looking to partner with companies who prioritise the creation of a circular economy.
The duo defined their ideal partner as a company who are able to supply them with plastic but who are also looking for chemical products which are created as part of the output. Currently, the company are also discussing the possibility of turning clothing waste into fertiliser to then grow cotton plants. Decentralising recycling is the key aim for Epoch Biodesign, which can begin on a small scale. Eventually, each and every household could have an appliance to help them recycle their waste better, meaning there would be less need for landfill and incineration facilities.