What’s Possible: 23rd September, 2022

A weekly curation of what’s possible in frontier tech.

What’s Possible: 23rd September, 2022

We hope you enjoy this week's hand-picked selection of important and interesting stories from the frontiers of tech.

Epoch BioDesign clamps down on pollution with plastic eating enzymes.

Chris Sacca's Lowercarbon Capital led an $11 million round into Epoch Biodesign, a startup experimenting with enzymes that can eat through plastic and turn them into everyday chemicals to be used for the likes of fertilizers and cleaning supplies.

The startup, buried in the basement of one of Finsbury Square's huddled office blocks, believes it can help tackle pollution and the need for fossil fuel-based chemicals.

"I thought it would be a good idea if you could take all of these plastics and turn them into the very same chemicals that we use to make our modern world happen," Epoch's 21-year-old cofounder Jacob Nathan, who came up with the idea for the company while in high school, told Insider.

Jacob Nathan, Co-Founder of Epoch Biodesign

Epoch Biodesign uses plastic-eating enzymes as a base and scientifically alters them to produce a specific chemical from the consumed plastic.

Nathan believes the process could make recycling a "profitable business" while also enabling companies to decarbonize chemical production by using waste plastic rather than newly-extracted fossil carbon.

Nature is filled with quirks. Plastic-eating bacteria was first found in a dump by Japanese researchers in 2016, leading to the discovery of a plastic-eating enzyme in 2018.

Around 221kg of plastic waste is generated per person in the US annually, according to data from the OECD. Globally, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled with a further 19% incinerated while 50% ends up in landfill.

Plastics are made using a range of chemicals, many of which rely on the fossil fuel industry. Crude oil, natural gas, and coal are extracted and refined into chemicals including monomers. The chemicals are then converted into polymers, which are compounded to create everything from packaging to teeth fillings.

Inside Epoch

Epoch Biodesign has established its Finsbury Square abode as its headquarters, having started out in the University of Liverpool, where cofounder and systems biologist Douglas Kell is still based.

The HQ features open-plan office space, a lab, and a life-sized cutout of esteemed British broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. Nathan became hyper-aware of climate change thanks to Attenborough's Blue Planet series.

Kell had worked with Nathan's great uncle, a computer scientist, on applying machine learning to biology in the 90s. It was that link that spurred Nathan to email the biologist on the eve of a high school English class.

"Four minutes later, I get this absolute essay of an email from him – I don't know how he wrote it in four minutes –, of like 'this is incredibly exciting, don't tell people about this, this is really interesting,'" Nathan said.

Enzymes are the most efficient way to convert plastics to chemicals – a process that relies on a chemical reaction –, Nathan said, because they can do it at room temperature and at very low pressures.

The lab houses high throughput robotics, advanced liquid handlers, centrifuges, and analytical equipment. All of which is designed to tweak, test, and iterate the design of the naturally plastic-eating enzyme, found in soil samples, for efficiency.

Variations of enzymes are designed using machine learning so they can chomp through the plastics that are the toughest to recycle – flexible films and polyethylenes – and leave behind specific chemicals, Nathan said. The process can make a variety of chemicals that are used today in plastics, fertilizers, coatings, paints, and adhesives, he added.

Epoch Biodesign is also developing enabling technologies to do this cheaper, faster, better, and at greater scale. It currently tracks how enzymes break down plastic over a matter of days, but Nathan hopes this will come down to hours when at scale.

Nathan expects to go to market "sooner than one would think" – in a matter of years, he said.

The Epoch Biodesign team starts by designing the blueprints for tens of millions of different enzymes in a computer and builds them physically, encoding specific DNA that will achieve the plastic-eating and chemical-generating results that they want. The enzymes are then tested in the lab.

The DNA of physical designs is then sequenced and its efficiency results data are fed into machine learning algorithms. The process is repeated, with the team tweaking enzymes each time, until they create an enzyme that meets the company's performance targets in areas like the time it takes to break down plastics.

Once the enzyme is nailed down and production is scaled up, Nathan envisions a large, steel bioreactor – similar to the type that is used to brew beer – where shredded plastics and powdered enzymes are mixed for a few hours.

"What we'd be left with then is a kind of mix of different chemicals that we can separate out and sell into lots of different industries, or we can sell as a mixed product into a number of different applications," the cofounder said.

In the long run, Epoch Biodesign expects to license out its technology so it isn't running facilities itself.

"I'd love to see plastics turned into chemicals for fertilizers, for cleaning products," Nathan added. "What if a Unilever-type company could turn their own waste plastics into their own cleaning products? That could be a really interesting customer story."

— from Business Insider (full article)

Salesforce Announces Carbon Credit Marketplace

Net Zero Marketplace, built on Salesforce’s Commerce Cloud, connects buyers and ecopreneurs — environmentally-focused entrepreneurs who lead and drive climate action worldwide — offering a catalog of third-party rated carbon credits and a seamless ecommerce experience for purchasing them. Net Zero Marketplace also features a climate action hub where anyone — businesses or individuals — can learn about climate issues.  (read)

The End of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

This animated video shows @TheOceanCleanup’s vision of a future in which the Great Pacific Garbage Patch - three times the size of France and containing up to 100,000,000 kilograms of plastic waste - is consigned to the history books. (watch)

Generative AI: A Creative New World

A powerful new class of large language models is making it possible for machines to write, code, draw and create with credible and sometimes superhuman results. (read)

When will the VC funding floodgates open?

Dry powder is a strong indicator of future pace - the numbers suggest that the VC industry will have only a modest slowdown this year and will see record levels of investment in 2023 and 2024. When the floodgates open, there will be a tidal wave of new capital for startups. (thread)

Twitter avatar for @jonsakoda

Jon Sakoda @jonsakoda

(1/5) The VC industry has the highest level of dry powder after a record breaking fundraising season and a summer slowdown in deal pace. There is ~$290 B in dry powder available for startups in VC funds - when will the funding floodgates open?


5:01 PM ∙ Sep 20, 20221,952Likes299Retweets

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