Written by Andrew Seale
In Genecis‘ world, food waste isn’t waste any more. Instead, it’s a building block, a resource, something to reimagine and release back into the world with new purpose. And if the Toronto startup’s cutting edge science and synthetic biology bet pays off, the $1 trillion in food waste generated across the globe annually, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, could be an inexpensive and much more renewable alternative to the sugarcane and cornstarch currently used for bioplastics.
“We started off our journey to see what we could easily do to extract those carbons from food waste and turn them into much higher value materials,” explains founder Luna Yu. She and her colleague Abdul Khogali, who met while studying for their master’s in environmental science, brought the idea to the program director Dr. Roberta Fulthorpe and her laboratory at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
“She really loved the idea, she thought what we were doing had a lot of commercial value so she ended up letting us use her laboratory for free,” says Yu. “That's how we really got our research off the ground.”
It was 2016 and society was fiercely debating plastic’s place in a future staring down climate change. By August 2018, they’d succeeded in making their first few milligrams of PHAs (Polyhydroxyalkanoates), biodegradable thermoplastics produced by mutating bacteria cultures and selectively pressuring them to turn carbon into the substance.
“We picked PHAs because it's a lot more environmentally friendly, it has superior properties compared to other types of petroleum plastics and bioplastics,” she says. “We extract the PHA granules from the bacteria and compress them into pellets that can be sold to plastic manufacturers to be moulded into end products.”
PHAs are compatible with existing infrastructure, so plastics manufacturers don’t need to buy new equipment to work with the pellets like they do with most starch-based bioplastics.
“It’s also one of the only types of bioplastics that can be readily combined with petroleum plastics to form recycled resins of good quality,” explains Yu. “That's not common amongst the bioplastics space.”
Genecis has leaned heavily on Toronto’s startup ecosystem and the rich trove of expertise in bioinformatics, big data, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. The student-run startup has been a part of U of T’s The Entrepreneurship Hatchery and the Creative Destruction Lab.
“We got really involved with the Centre for Social Innovation last year,” says Yu of the Agents of Change climate solutions accelerator. They recently joined CSI’s Climate Ventures, a cross-sector incubator for climate entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders. “They really supported us from the very get-go, giving us resources, access to mentors, access to other startups in the same space sharing the same problems and solutions,” she says. “Everyone really wants to do impactful things with their work and business.”
In September, Yu and co. clinched $300,000 in support from MaRS, as part of the Women in Cleantech Challenge sponsored by Natural Resources Canada. The company is still working on scaling up its synthetic biology platform. But once it does, the impact could be far-reaching. “(We have) the ability to become one of the first companies to be able to directly program bacteria DNA to make better bacteria that make better things.”
Photos by Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)