Written by Andrew Seale

Recycl3d could’ve stopped at turning plastic water bottles into filaments for 3D printing. Instead, the startup has stretched the limit of waste as a resource, creating a material that is not only conducive but also an organic photovoltaic capable of convert energy into electricity. All from the millions of water bottles finding their way to landfills and waterways.

Omar Saleh is the genius behind it, says Nicole McCallum, who co-founded Recycl3d alongside the Egypt-born, University of Waterloo educated chemical engineer. “He's the type of guy you can text on a Tuesday afternoon, and say ‘hey Omar can you figure out water desalination for us’ and he'll come up with an idea by the end of the week,” says McCallum. “He’s the Batman to my Robin.”

The pair were connected in 2016 by Hariharan Krithivasan, also a co-founder, and have since built a business around the material, working with researchers both at the University of Waterloo and the SSN College of Engineering in Chennai. Since then they’ve only scratched the surface of the material’s potential. Under the Recycl3d Planet not-for-profit banner, the company uses the filament to print prosthetics.

The startup plans to be 3D printing solar panels using the plastic bottle-derived filaments by the end of the year at a fraction of the cost and emissions of virgin products. But McCallum says it’s the conducive and photovoltaic nature that is most disruptive.

“You could print (coral reef) that is also conducive so you could track the ecosystem underwater in real-time,” she says. “We have a hybrid filament that we have proof of concept and we outperformed specs from Samsung and Hyundai's research labs in organic photovoltaics in 2018.”

McCallum is currently based in Waterloo, but she says she’s uprooting to join the Toronto startup scene. She points out that while she’s been spoiled by the startup ecosystem in Waterloo, she’s looking to immerse herself further in Toronto’s social enterprise community.

“Part of that is to access a more diverse set of services and humans within the entrepreneurial scene,” she says. “I do love Waterloo but Toronto seems to be a strong social entrepreneurship hub.”

Recycl3d is a part of CSI’s Climate Ventures, which has helped McCallum identify the right support network. But there’s still a disconnect between funding and social enterprises. Part of the challenge, McCallum admits, is social entrepreneur’s grappling with the right language to convince venture capitalists there’s a revenue model behind their idea.

“(Having a revenue model) is one of the differentiators between social enterprise and traditional forms of creating change like social safe-keeping, social advocacy – not every social and environmental service can be paid for,” she says. And there isn’t always a way to generate money. But if there is, you’ve got to figure out how to speak to Bay Street.

“I've been laughed out of the room so many times by people,” she says. “The nice thing about having an economics business background is I can quantify most the weird crazy hippie ideas I come up with.”

Photo credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)