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Can This New Enzyme Tech Recycle Away Plastic, Textile Waste?

Protein Evolution Inc. (PEI) has introduced what could be groundbreaking technology that transforms textile and mixed-plastic waste into what it said is an infinitely reusable resource, helping the chemicals industry transition to a lower-carbon, circular economy.

Leveraging recent breakthroughs in natural science and artificial intelligence, the company designs enzymes to break down end-of-life textile and plastic waste into the building blocks that make up new textile and plastic products. PEI’s proprietary process is said to be the first of its kind that is built to scale, creating a cost-effective solution with immediate applications for the petrochemical industry, global consumer goods companies, textile manufacturers and others looking to significantly reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

Protein Evolution’s initial funding, totaling more than $20 million, was led by Collaborative Fund’s recently announced climate fund, Collab SOS, which is in partnership with fashion designer Stella McCartney. Additional funding came from New Climate Ventures, Eldridge, Nextrans and Good Friends, which is backed by the founders of Warby Parker, Allbirds and Harry’s.

“Despite significant and aggressive industry commitments toward sustainability, the current approach to plastic recycling is costly, ineffective and resource-intensive,” said Connor Lynn, PEI co-founder and chief business officer. “Right now, it’s far cheaper for petrochemical companies to produce new virgin plastics than it is to recycle existing materials, which is one of many reasons why used plastic is piling up in our oceans, landfills and incinerators.”

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“PEI has innovated a low-energy, cost-competitive process for upcycling finished plastics that’s poised to meet both industry concerns and deliver massive environmental benefits,” Lynn added. “We’re working hard to usher in a new era of plastics, one that’s truly sustainable and circular.”

Sophie Bakalar, a partner at Collaborative Fund and PEI board member, said corporations and the actions they take today play a significant role in charting the course of the climate future.

“The technology that Protein Evolution has developed allows the world’s largest consumer brands to meet sustainability commitments at scale, without compromising on cost or quality of materials,” Bakalar added. “Our investment in PEI is an incredible opportunity to support an innovator who will soon become a leader in the global bioeconomy.”

Protein Evolution’s technology iteratively tests, evaluates and maps tens of millions of unique enzymes to identify the most effective way to recycle waste materials into reusable chemicals. This approach will help to decarbonize the chemicals industry and will carry significant impact in the emerging bioeconomy as companies, communities and governments are required to meet global sustainability goals in the years ahead.

“Nature has already produced a bacteria that can break down plastic for emission-free recycling, but it’s extremely slow. If we had a few million years to wait for evolution to run its course, we’d have something much more efficient,” said Scott Stankey, PEI co-founder and chief technology officer. “Our technology condenses a million-year evolutionary process into a single day, helping us create an affordable, scalable and effective solution to revolutionize the plastic waste industry.”

Jonathan Rothberg, co-founder and chairman of Protein Evolution, said that as the bioeconomy continues to grow and scaling biomanufacturing continues to become more crucial to support that growth, “it’s clear that the work Protein Evolution is doing will help lay the foundation for the future of synthetic biology,”

The Protein Evolution team works in tandem with pre-eminent researchers who are pushing the boundaries of protein engineering and materials innovation. The team expects to launch its first commercial partnership by the end of 2022, addressing the needs of global consumer brands seeking to recycle and transform textiles and mixed-plastic waste.

Protein Evolution was founded in 2021 by Lynn and fellow Yale University alumni Lynn and Stankey, in partnership with Dr. Jonathan Rothberg, a scientist, entrepreneur and National Medal of Technology and Innovation recipient and chairman and of PEI. Based in New Haven, Conn., Protein Evolution has a partnership with ESPCI Paris and 4Catalyzer, a life sciences accelerator dedicated to making a global impact through bold innovations in medicine, engineering, machine learning, life sciences and biotech.