Harvard University, USA

Plastic waste management is a global challenge. Every year more than 360 million tons of plastic waste is generated around the world and more than 75% remains either on land or in the ocean for decades. Not only does disposing of plastic have adverse ecological and health impacts, but it is also a missed opportunity to convert this massive amount of material into valuable byproducts for a circular economy. Most conventional recycling methods rely on relatively clean and pure plastic inputs, which requires costly separation of the highly mixed and contaminated post-use plastic that arrives at solid waste facilities before recycling can be initiated.

We are a pre-venture team at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University that is developing a synthetic biology approach to economically and safely degrade complex mixtures of plastics into valuable byproducts. We have identified novel microbes that can degrade certain plastics and are currently evolving the bacterial strains so that they can rely entirely on plastic as a carbon source, paving the way for a new class of microorganisms that must eat plastic to survive. We are building a technological and business strategy that positions us as the first bioremediation effort that can handle multiple types of plastic without requiring separation, and hence, the first to be a commercial success.

Stage of funding:

Pre-venture, university commercialization project

Mentoring needs:

  1. Business strategy advisory
  2. Strategic partners (waste management and biomanufacturing)
  3. Global market understanding (ex-US)
  4. Fundraising

About the founders

Vaskar Gnyawali

Vaskar is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Don Ingber, at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.  Vaskar earned his Undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering from Tribhuvan University, Nepal, Master’s Degree in Microsystems Engineering from University of Freiburg, Germany and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Ryerson University, Canada.  His work has been recognized with peer-reviewed research articles, patent grants, and academic awards including the Governor General Gold Medal from Ryerson University. For the last eight years, Vaskar has been involved in developing micro technologies for biomedical applications. With a keen interest in sustainability, he recently started the project to bio-remediate plastic waste using natural synthetic biotechnological tools.  

Sukanya Punthambaker

Sukanya is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of George Church at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University and Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology from Bangalore University, Master’s degree in Biotechnology from the University of Mysore, India and her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan. She has over 15 years of experience in biotechnology, and has recently been working on technology development in various areas, including next generation single-molecule and spatial DNA sequencing. She recently started to work on using natural ways to degrade plastic in collaboration with Vaskar. Sukanya has received several awards including the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award and the Okkelberg award to an exceptional senior graduate student, both from the University of Michigan. She has authored impactful publications in reputed peer-reviewed journals.

Donald Ingber

Donald Ingber is the Founding Director of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He received his B.A., M.A., M.Phil., M.D. and Ph.D. from Yale University. Ingber is a pioneer in the field of biologically inspired engineering, and his work has led to major advances in microsystems engineering, mechanobiology, cell structure, tissue engineering, tumor angiogenesis, nanobiotechnology, and translational medicine, with his most recent pioneering contribution being the development of human Organs-on-Chips as replacements for animal testing and personalized medicine. He has made great strides in translating his innovations into commercial products and he also has helped to break down boundaries between science, art, and design. Ingber has authored more than 500 publications and 170 patents, founded 6 companies, lectured at over events internationally, and was named in the Top 20 Translational Researchers world-wide in 2012 and 2020.

George Church

George Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He also leads the Synthetic Biology group at the Wyss Institute, where he oversees the directed evolution of molecules, polymers, and whole genomes to create new tools with applications in regenerative medicine and bio-production of chemicals. Among his recent work is the development of a technology for synthesizing whole genes, and engineering whole genomes, faster, more accurate, and cheaper than current methods. George is widely recognized for his innovative contributions to genomic science and his many pioneering contributions to chemistry and biomedicine. He helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984 and the Personal Genome Project in 2005. His many innovations have been the basis for a number of companies including Editas (Gene therapy); Gen9bio (Synthetic DNA); and Veritas Genetics (human genome sequencing).   He has received numerous awards including the 2011 Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science from the Franklin Institute and election to the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering.