Ambercycle, a startup run by UC Davis alumni Akshay Sethi and Mubasher Ahmed, has won a Global Change Award, with €250,000 ($281,000) to commercialize their polyester digester—a technology that uses genetically engineered microbes to digest polyester textiles and convert them into raw materials that can be made into new textiles. The Global Change Awards are an annual innovation challenge for circular fashion initiated by the non-profit H&M Conscious Foundation.
Ambercycle is developing a process to convert polyester in a wide variety of post-consumer textile feedstock into raw material chemicals. These raw material chemicals can be used to make new polyester, without a loss in quality. The company began as the project of the 2012 UC Davis iGEM team, who used TEAM’s Molecular Prototyping and BioInnovation Lab (MPBIL) to build a version of the E. coli bacteria that consumes polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic as a carbon source and breaks it down into terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. The ethylene glycol can be fed back into the reaction, leaving terephtalic acid as a raw material that can be sold back to plastic producers. The project won a gold medal at the international iGEM competition, and the students founded Ambercycle to commercialize their invention. The startup won second place and $5,000 in UC Davis’ annual Big Bang! business competition. Ambercycle did all their preliminary studies in TEAM before moving to Bioscience Laboratories, a tech incubator in San Francisco.
“As undergraduates, we had some interesting ideas around making a plastic recycling system to solve some important problems in society. Prototyping ideas in the hard sciences usually requires specialized infrastructure. The TEAM MPBIL facility is special because it allows for innovations to be prototyped in a constructive, entrepreneurial environment. This is increasingly rare,” said Ambercycle founder Akshay Sethi
The polyester digester applies this technology to polyester textiles, which are difficult to recycle because they are often mixed with other fibers. Ambercycle’s microbes consume the fibers and convert them into raw materials that can then be made into new textiles. The process works whether the textile is pure polyester or mixed with other fibers, such as cotton. There is no loss of quality, and it is more cost-effective than producing polyester from the raw material petroleum. Ambercycle offers a way for textile manufacturers to produce high-quality 100% recycled polyester fabrics at a lower cost than new.
“As a small venture, the path to success is never linear. The flexibility and support MPBIL provided was instrumental in our development in our transition out of the lab, and into the marketplace,” said Sethi.
The method is currently under development, and partnering with a producer, a manufacturer and an early-adopter brand will be the next step in the process to start a pilot project.
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