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Recycling

BioCellection’s Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao aim to make treasure out of plastic trash

Shocked to learn how little plastic gets recycled, the duo founded a company so they could make a difference

by Leigh Krietsch Boerner
March 8, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 9

09809-feature18-wangyao.jpg
Credit: Jennifer Leahy
Miranda Wang (left) and Jeanny Yao (right) became passionate about plastics because of a high school field trip.
09809-feature18-wangyao.jpg
Credit: Jennifer Leahy
Miranda Wang (left) and Jeanny Yao (right) became passionate about plastics because of a high school field trip.

In the 11th grade, when most people are thinking about college, Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao had plastic on their minds. During an environmental-club field trip in 2011, the two visited a waste transfer station in Vancouver, British Columbia, and had a life-changing experience. “We were shocked to see how much plastic was in the garbage” and that it wasn’t being recycled, Wang says.

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Vitals

Title: CEO (Wang) and chief operating officer (Yao), BioCellection

Funding: $5 million

Select investors: Marc Benioff, the City of San Jose, Wendy Schmidt, and Taizo Son

The trip set the women on a life course. Wang and Yao saw a need for some new kind of technology to process plastics, Wang says. So they built one. In 2015, they founded BioCellection, a Menlo Park, California, start-up focused on breaking down polyethylene waste and changing it into a usable commodity. The company is focusing on polyethylene, Wang and Yao say, because recycling technology for the popular plastics poly(ethylene terephthalate) and polystyrene already exists, but there’s a hole in the recycling landscape where polyethylene strategies should be.

To process polyethylene, BioCellection first uses accelerated thermal oxidative decomposition to convert it into dicarboxylic acid. The firm is tight lipped about how the whole process works, but Wang says, “We’re taking a process that usually happens in nature for plastics over hundreds of years, but we shrink it down to less than 6 h.”

Generally, when a plastic bag is discarded, ultraviolet radiation oxidizes it, natural elements weather it, and it breaks down into microplastics and then chemical compounds that are ingested by microbes. These bugs process the compounds and eventually spit out simple molecular building blocks. “Instead of happening out on a beach, [with BioCellection] it’s happening in a reactor in a controlled fashion and an accelerated mode,” Wang says.

To what behavior or personality trait do you most attribute your success?

"I think my sense of composure. I’ve always just been pretty calm. I don’t freak out about things very easily, and I think: ‘Things could always be worse. Things could always be better.’ So I think I have a pretty Zen outlook that I don’t worry about the future. I look forward to it."

—Jeanny Yao

The firm takes the dicarboxylic acid it generates from polyethylene and transforms it into high-performance materials, such as photopolymers or polyurethane. “Our goal is to create a circular economy,” Wang says. “Not only are we turning this currently wasted carbon into new materials that are high performing,” she says, but BioCellection is also making new products that can be recycled over and over again.

Wang admits that there are a lot of technical challenges to achieving the circular economy that they haven’t figured out yet. But the company’s ultimate goal is to make materials whose performance is as good as or better than that of existing materials made by plastics manufacturers.

After their visit to the waste transfer station, Wang and Yao started working during their school year with biochemist Lindsay Eltis at the University of British Columbia. In Eltis’s lab, the duo focused on isolating certain bacteria and understanding how they are capable of eating phthalates, which are chemicals used as plasticizers. “In many ways, they were typical teenage girls,” Eltis says. But “what really shone through for me was their rare passion for science.”

What was your aha moment?

"Maybe that was the day when we were able to finally make dicarboxylic acid. . . . That was the moment when we knew that we were able to actually demonstrate the science of it. You can have however crazy of an idea, but demonstrating the science is extremely difficult sometimes."

—Miranda Wang

After graduating high school, Yao went to the University of Toronto to study biochemistry and environmental science, and Wang landed at the University of Pennsylvania to study molecular biology and engineering entrepreneurship. Yao was thinking of going to graduate school but changed course near the end of college, as the pair came to talk about what they call a disconnect between academia and solving real-world problems. “We needed to do something on our own and be able to create this circularity story outside of the academic environment,” Yao says.

Wang and Yao started BioCellection before they finished their undergraduate degrees, supported by a European venture capital accelerator program called IndieBio (now RebelBio). As part of that program, they worked in Cork, Ireland, for 3–4 months to research their idea. Then “we just decided that this is something really worth pursuing,” Yao says.

Wang and Yao attribute their entrepreneurial spirit partially to their families. Both their fathers are entrepreneurs, and the pair didn’t feel pressured by their parents to chase conventional jobs. Building their own company has been fulfilling, Wang says. “We like to get stuff done, and we like the feeling of people working together toward the same goal. That energy is really contagious, and it puts us in our best mode.”

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Comments
Kenrod (March 9, 2020 7:07 PM)
"The firm is tight lipped about how the whole process works".

Well, there is a reason for that: the process is useless and impractical. I've seen Ms. Wang give talks on this and, indeed being "tight lipped", did show videos of the chemical reaction consuming the polyethylene. The reddish-brown gas in the vapor phase above the reaction was, I thought, a dead give-away that they were simply oxidizing the PE with nitric acid. If that was the case then it follows that they were making complex mixtures of diacids (and probably other oxidation products).

Now, two patents on this have recently appeared, US 10,519,292 and US 10,557,011. Look them up and read them. The examples and claims in these patents are exactly as sususpected: non-selective nitric acid oxidation to produce a dog's dinner mixture of oxidized organics, plus copious quantities of NOx, using large excesses of nitric acid.

I challenge anyone to present a cogent argument that this chemistry is of any use or solves any plastic waster problems. If the complex product mixture coming out of this is a "useful commodity" that can be used to make "high-performance materials, such as photopolymers or polyurethane" then show some realistic and convincing data to suggest that. Based on my process chemistry experience with extremely similar materials I am left skeptical that will ever happen, and certainly not at any process cost that could be remotely competitive with alternatives.

This story is hype and marketing hoping to attract more investment dollars. It bears a remarkable similarity to Theranos, right down to the oversold promotion by individuals with no training, education, or experience in the area in which they are involved.

I apologize for the harsh tone. However, at some point reality needs to rear its head even if it goes against the feel-good publicity.
ATSUSHI (March 9, 2020 9:26 PM)
Having personally seen their technology as an investor in real life and witnessed what they do with the products, I can say that this team of innovators has truly developed a solution to the plastic waste problem. This team has figured it out! The patents don’t disclose everything. Obviously this is not an easy one, but pursuing the new innovations day and night and we are bet on them. Of course, it doesn't guarantee success, but I believe that is the spirit of Silicon Valley.
Nora Menkens (March 13, 2020 2:28 AM)
As a former synthetic chemist who worked in the advanced materials industry, I can say that Biocellection’s team has done some top notch RND and put in the hard work to explore an impressive product application space over the last few years, with believable results. Comparing their honest labor to Theranos is not just harsh, it is demonstrates your desire to be malicious.
Elliot (March 9, 2020 9:44 PM)
I've been following these guys since I saw them talk at an NSF event last year and they have moved fast. I'm impressed that they were able to take concepts from the academic literature and build on them to create something really unique. Excited to see where it goes
Maria (March 9, 2020 11:10 PM)
I have been following Miranda and Jeanny for several years now. They caught my interest when they first did their TED talk in 2013. They have been on this idea already while still at high school as young ladies and presented solutions on the plastic topic during their high school science fair. Years of work, experiments, research led them to create BioCellection. They pivoted tech from bio to chem to make an economically feasible solution. BioCellection has an impressive team of experts and creating real impact around the plastic pollution by providing a sound circular solution.
James (March 10, 2020 1:13 AM)
Polyethylene depolymerization is hard to control, its impressive they’ve cracked it. Upcycling really makes a lot of sense in this case.
Bill Liao (March 10, 2020 5:24 AM)
I knew they were on to something when they joined the IndieBio EU accelerator in 2015. Their mission has always been the same - to turn plastic pollution into value. They started working on this before the China Plastic Ban when few funders focused on this space, but they have survived long enough and evolved the technology to capture the investment attention as a result of the China Plastic Ban. Way to go!!

As there first serious investors we did a full due diligence and we have a chemistry PHD on staff so the comments above are based in ignorance. Guess what? When you have a proprietary method that your business returns are depend on your investors may not want you to share it until you are profitable and expanding because it takes a lot of capital to build new infrastructure and your investors deserve a return on their investment. Funny that!
Jennifer Fox (March 10, 2020 8:13 AM)
It’s so nice to see people working on recycling something besides PET water bottles. Controlling this type of chemistry is hard, good for them for figuring it out. I'm impressed that they are working though extremely difficult processes for the long term betterment of our environment.
Alexander (March 10, 2020 1:21 PM)
It's great to see BioCellection featured here! The world needs more people who are passionate about hard technical problems (and to find ways to support those passions). I'm excited to see the various end-products they are bringing online, and to watch them scale up the amount of currently-wasted plastic that they can process. I hope their work inspires others in similar fields.
CD (March 11, 2020 12:21 AM)
I agree that skepticism is prudent. I'm honestly keen to know what their process really accomplishes. For now, though, I give 'em the benefit of my doubt. I think it's too soon to say there's nothing of substance. With as glaring a fire as Theranos became, I also have to imagine these two are mindful of avoiding the same fate. For ours and the planet's sakes, I hope they're onto something.
Janine Reimann (March 11, 2020 9:49 AM)
BioCellection is such a cool company. Kat Knauer who just joined the company has a track record as scientific expert, innovator, trailblazer and sustainability advocate at BASF. I cant wait to see where they company is headed. I have high expectations!
Javier Larragoiti (March 26, 2020 2:38 AM)
I have been following their work since I saw Miranda Pitching at MIT Solve. I am certain they blend the knowledge and passion necessary to create a disruptive solution for plastic waste. It is incredible the amount of partnerships they have built to successfuly do scale-up studies! Undoubtly, a well deserved article.

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