When Grow Bioplastics was launched in 2015, its founders had a big vision: Replace oil-based plastics everywhere with naturally decomposing ones.
In January, the company received a $225,000 seed fund from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help it achieve just that.
Grow Bioplastics specializes in the research and development of plastics that “can be broken down by bacteria and fungi in the soil at ambient conditions,” co-founder and CEO Tony Bova said.
The company’s focus has been on the agricultural applications of this technology since it offers biodegradable alternatives to traditional plastic mulch used for farming as well as plastic gardening pots.
Now, the company is looking to improve its product line using the money it was awarded for Phase I of the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant.
“(Our technology) uses a waste product from the paper and biofuel industry called lignin,” Bova, graduate student in bioenergy and biofuel, said. Lignin is the fibrous compound that gives trees and other woody plants their rigidities.
“For this grant, we are focusing on different types of lignin that come from different plant and tree species and the different extraction technologies these companies use to remove that lignin to see what impact those differences have on our plastics,” Bova said.
Bova said the group's research would allow it to develop a lignin-based plastic that functions like low-density polyethylene, which is the type of plastic used in grocery and trash bags. Then the company would apply for Phase II of the SBIR grant and, if successful, would receive $750,000 for the prototyping of new agricultural products and a foray into other potential applications.
“We built our company around using bioplastics in agriculture, but our vision is much, much bigger,” co-founder and chief science officer Jeff Beegle said. “We would love to find solutions for plastic waste in packaging, textiles and even biomedical applications.”
Beegle, graduate student in microbiology, placed a special emphasis on the possibility of developing a biodegradable alternative to styrofoam.
“I hate it when I get a package and it’s bursting with packing peanuts or when I go out to eat and get a styrofoam clamshell container to transport my leftovers,” Beegle said. “Finding a sustainable alternative to this would be a lifetime achievement for me.”
Sustainability is the crux of the business for Bova and Beegle. The two met by working together on various sustainability projects while in separate graduate programs at the University of Toledo in Ohio. One such project was the establishment of the Student Green Fund at their university, which Beegle said was instrumental in stimulating the pair’s entrepreneurship.
In Grow Bioplastics, Bova and Beegle continue in the spirit of cooperation.
“We can’t (address sustainability) alone, so we are also trying to work with other startups making bioplastics,” Beegle said. “In other situations, other startups pose a challenge as competitors, but when you are fighting huge global problems, other startups are partners.”
Grow Bioplastics has also partnered with organizations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which advocates a “circular economy” and proposes solutions to the problem of plastic waste in multiple industries.
Despite the company’s remarkable growth, running a student start-up presents unique challenges. Bova cited grant proposal-writing as one of the most difficult processes Grow Bioplastics has undergone.
“We were fortunate to receive a micro-grant for $4,000 from Launch Tennessee to hire a grant writing consultant (for the SBIR grant),” Tony said. “The hardest thing we learned from that process was that the first time … we just were not ready. We spent the next six months (preparing) before we sent it in June of 2017.”
Beegle said that being student entrepreneurs provided them with access to the faculty guidance and other resources that helped them obtain the grant. On the other hand, it was a regular occurrence for the team to manage its time between graduate coursework and running the business. Their statuses as students often meant that they weren’t taken seriously.
“It’s hard to understand real-world problems when you are in school because you are so focused on coursework and don’t have experience in a specific field,” Beegle said. “Some people will see your solutions as naïveté and unrealistic. But those are often the ideas that are most disruptive.”
However, at Grow Bioplastics, the disruption is welcome.
“Biodegradable plastics like we are trying to create are a renewable resource, and we think that it can help people around the planet,” Beegle said. “It might even help the planet itself.”