Manyung Emma Hon’s startup is developing plastic eating microbes as a solution to the world’s growing plastics problem.
By Tatyana Hopkins
Manyung Emma Hon, a senior studying engineering at the George Washington University, wants to save the world.
More specifically, she hopes to protect the natural environment from degradation. So, she started a business to provide sustainable alternatives to traditional waste management in hopes of solving the world’s plastics problem.
Ms. Hon, said since 1950, 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced, and 6.3 billion tons of it have become waste in landfills, with a lifespan of 1,000 years.
Her startup, Envirobe, which she co-founded with Samuel James Magaziner, an M.D. and doctoral candidate at the New York University School of Medicine, is developing environmentally friendly, human-safe and cost-effective microbes that are designed to breakdown a common type of plastic, Type 1 plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used to make most single use consumer packaging materials and plastic water bottles.
They hope to improve the circular economy for contaminated and colored PET plastic wastes by converting them into high-value chemicals, as well as mitigate the catastrophic effects of harmful environmental plastics that are ingested by animals and humans.
Creating a sustainable world
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Ms. Hon was inspired to design a sustainable solution to the world’s growing plastics problem after witnessing environmental decline in China first-hand.
In 2015, it was reported that air pollution was responsible for the deaths of about 1.6 million people per year in China.
“I aim to stop all pollutions,” Ms. Hon said.
Hoping to join the 2019 GW New Venture Competition, she considered solutions for environmental issues as they were both personally important to her and also urgently demanded in business.
Focusing on plastic, she brainstormed ideas.
“I had a big picture idea of how the system should look with different implementations in mind,” she said. “But I needed a core technology.”
She then consulted with Mr. Magaziner, whom she met through mutual friends and had extensive research experience in molecular biology, bacteriology and genetics.
“He used his expertise to analyze viabilities of different plastic degrading methods with me,” Ms. Hon said. “Then, we settled on plastic eating microbes.”
The team worked to optimize a naturally sourced microbe that would break PET plastics down to its two main chemicals used to create virgin PET, terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol.
The un-finished product
Envirobe entered last year’s New Venture Competition under the name Plast-ways, where they won a number of prizes including the top prize in the competition’s tech track.
Having also participated in GW’s I-Corp, the GW Summer Startup Accelerator and investment programs at TEDCO, a Maryland based organization that helps entrepreneurs take their innovation to market, Ms. Hon and her partner plan to mainly fund the company with government research grants and prize money from business competitions.
But Ms. Hon said being a technology startup with a product in development has been challenging.
“Just like any other cleantech or life science venture, our solution requires a large research and development cost,” she said. “However, most of the other technology track ventures from the competitions are software based or already have developed technologies. Some even have revenue from selling products.”
She said while they use market research to estimate revenues, the most important thing to have is a detailed, validated business model.
“We constantly pitch our idea to everyone around us,” Ms. Hon said. “By answering questions from people with different backgrounds, we have all aspects of the business covered. We also dig into the details of our business model and gear up with explanations for every assumption we made. These preparations built our confidence to compete against entrepreneurs with products.”
Failure is key
Ms. Hon said most technology startups don’t start with a product. Rather, they often begin with an idea and validate it by talking to prospective customers and other stakeholders.
“Your technology will need to have customers before it is deemed valuable,” she said.
She said Envirobe has heavily relied on customer discovery, talking to potential customers and industry experts, as well as competition feedback to develop business models.
The group’s first idea was to attach a sprayer to public trashcans so that plastic waste could degrade directly in the trashcan. However, talks with waste management consultants pointed out the idea was not very practical or cost efficient.
The next business model, which the group pitched at the New Venture competition, was to use their technology in landfills. But after talking with potential landfill clients, they realized that, too, was not the best application for their microbes.
They then pivoted to their current idea, which will collect rejected leftover plastic from PET processing plants that recycle PET plastics, and re-sell the chemicals resulting from their microbe process to plastic manufactures, to reduce their need for new petroleum for plastic.
“Flexibility and persistence are important for developing businesses,” Ms. Hon said. “Rejection is and will always be a part of entrepreneurship. I have even grown to appreciate early rejections and negative feedback as those allow me to take a step back, re-evaluate market need, then reshape our business plan to truly and cost-effectively solve the core issues in the industry. We have to be flexible to adapt and persistent to keep chase our dream. As we believe, the road to success is not a straight line but closing doors will guide us in the right direction.”