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.
➤ 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.
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.”
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.”