At Novoloop, chemists take on tech bros with recycling
Düsseldorf, Germany — Think Menlo Park, Calif., and you'll likely think of digital technology. The city is famous for its cryptocurrency-hawking tech bros and its games development houses — not to mention being home to the online behemoth that is Meta (aka Facebook and Instagram).
It's not a place you'd readily associate with groundbreaking technology for the chemical upcycling of waste plastics.
The Novoloop story started some years ago, when two best friends at a Vancouver, British Columbia, high school were on a school trip to a waste transfer station. Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao were horrified to discover how much plastic was not being recycled and how much plastic was not recyclable.
The teenagers vowed to do something about it. After high school, the two friends went on to university: Wang to the University of Pennsylvania and Yao to the University of Toronto.
Upon graduation, the pair reunited to pursue their ambition, forming their company, Novoloop Inc., in 2015. What makes Novoloop different to many chemistry startups is that it attracted the kind of venture capital usually associated with data businesses. Indeed, their first backer, SOSV, is led by Sean O'Sullivan, the pioneer of digital mapping and inventor of the term cloud computing.
"We're based in Menlo Park, which is a little bit unusual for a chemical startup," said Wang, "but the reason we are there is because there are a lot of people, a lot of investors who care about sustainability and impacts, and business as a vehicle for doing good. And so our company has raised $25 million to date, and we have over 30 employees."
When Wang and Yao founded the company, they were originally considering using enzymes to degrade waste. "But we quickly pivoted away from that," said Wang, "because we realized how slow that mechanism was."
Novoloop's process is a way of making the polyol needed as a precursor for the production of thermoplastic polyurethane, from the waste polyethylene. Chemical recycling of plastics isn't universally praised as "a good thing" because of the large amounts of energy required in pyrolysis, refining and synthesis, but Novoloop's process skips these steps.
"What we've invented is a chemical upcycling technology which starts with an oxidation. It's called ATOD, which stands for accelerated thermal oxidative decomposition, which essentially breaks apart the polyethylene on a molecular level," Wang said.