DAVIS, CA, October, 2014—In the 1967 film The Graduate, young Dustin Hoffman quite famously is encouraged to heed the advice of an elder who gravely whispers two short syllables: “Plastics.”

Nobody could have anticipated, half a century later, that this same word would become an environmental scourge, thanks to ubiquitous empty bottles and bags blighting neighborhood streets, and ghastly images of floating plastic debris patches in the Pacific ocean.

Akshay Sethi, Alyanna Bangayan and Victor Awad of the UC Davis student startup company, Ambercycle

Akshay Sethi, Alyanna Bangayan and Victor Awad of the UC Davis student startup company Ambercycle, which has developed a biological process to breakdown plastics.

Fortunately, the unintended consequences of yesterday’s technological advances, become the grand challenges to be solved by today’s young engineers. Thanks to undergraduates Akshay Sethi and Victor Awad, and their UC Davis-based start-up Ambercycle, we soon may see tangible progress regarding the world’s “plastics problem.”Ambercycle intends to develop a faster, better and economically superior means of recycling the stuff.

“Plastic recycling, as practiced today, isn’t very efficient,” Awad explains. “Basically, you melt down a bottle, mix it with new plastic, and make a lower quality plastic. The process is expensive. More to the point, it delivers a product that incorporates only 10 to 20 percent recycled material.”

Sethi had a better idea shortly after he arrived at UC Davis in the fall of 2011. That “better idea” resulted in a biologically based lab project that degraded specific plastics. He co-found Ambercycle slightly more than a year later, in August 2012, in part as a means to enter that year’s International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) entrepreneurship competition. The UC Davis team took a gold medals at that year’s iGEM Regional Jamboree in Palo Alto, as well as at the international jamboree at MIT

“Making virgin plastic currently is a very convoluted process that primarily involves purified terephthalic acid (PTA) mixed with ethylene glycol, which produces polyethylene terephthalate (PET),” Awad continues. “Ambercycle uses a biological process to break down plastic at the molecular level, back to those source components: terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. The ethylene glycol can be fed back into the reaction as fuel, and the terephthalic acid can be sold off.”

Mention of the Pacific trash vortex prompts a smile.

“We’re not trying to save the world,” Awad clarifies, “at least, not right away. Our initial goals are more modest. Akshay and I believe that we can establish ourselves as a viable biotech company, because our research — our numbers and lab projections — show that we already can break down plastic, producing terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol, at a rate that is economically competitive, given current market prices.

“Once we achieve our current goal of increased efficiency, and we secure a steady stream of feedstock plastic, we’ll be able to produce terephthalic acid at a price that’s competitive, or even cheaper, that what is charged by the oil companies that currently produce it.”

In a nutshell, Ambercycle is looking to wedge itself into the plastic production market. This will be accomplished thanks to the proprietary bacteria — the “special bugs” — that have been cultured to devour and transform the feedstock plastic.

Sethi’s early lab work was done at the UC Davis Genome Center, under the guidance of Marc Facciotti, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Biomedical Engineering. Facciotti continues to be one of the company’s advisors.

Sethi received additional early assistance Gerald Dion, then an MBA student in the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. Dion helped Ambercycle prepare a pitch for the 2013 Big Bang! Business Competition sponsored by the UC Davis Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship; the team won third place and benefitted from the opportunity to network and hone its business pitch.

Awad, a chemical engineering major, joined the company in the summer of 2013, shortly after that initial Big Bang! success. Sethi remains Ambercycle’s CEO of technology development, while Awad serves as COO of process development.

Ambercycle became a tenant in the UC Davis Engineering Translational Technology Center (ETTC) receiving guidance from co-directors Bruce White and Jim Olson. In the fall of 2013, Ambercycle also became one of the first clients of the Engineering Student Startup Center (ESSC), which assists entrepreneurial students with ideation, prototyping and technology startups, much the way ETTC accelerates the commercialization of intellectual property developed by College of Engineering faculty.

Armed with their previous year’s experience, along with pointers from ETTC’s White and Olson, Sethi and Awad entered the 2014 Big Bang competition. This time, they triumphed with a $5,000 second-place finish among the 66 registered teams, as well as claiming a $1,000 undergraduate prize.

“That was reassuring,” Awad smiles, “because it showed that we’re making progress. We’ve made positive strides with both the technology and the company since last year. By the end of this year, we hope to have a stable pilot plant running, either on campus or someplace externally, with steady production of terephthalic acid. Our first-gen product will be vials of terephthalic acid, produced by degrading a couple dozen bottles at a time. That’ll be a solid proof-of-concept for us.”

“Going into 2015, we hope to expand into a larger facility,” Awad continues, “Instead of producing grams or kilograms of terephthalic acid, we’ll be producing tons. We’re projected to be profitable within five to seven years, at which point we’ll purchase new equipment and upgrade further.”

Sethi and Awad anticipate graduating at the end of spring quarter 2015. Unlike many peers who then will embrace graduate school, Ambercycle’s two-man team expects to ride this startup rocket to entrepreneurial success.

“It has been difficult,” Awad admits. “But it’s rewarding and very exciting. It’s hard not to get star-struck by some of the things we’ve gotten involved with, especially when I see the progress we’re making. It’s great to come back to that every day!”

— by Derrick Bang