Elena Dieckmann and Ryan Robinson - co-founders of Aeropowder

Environmental and sustainable engineering businesses led by student innovators

From chicken feathers to cigarette butts, young innovators are creating a sustainable future from the most unlikely of sources.

According to the latest edition of the WATT Executive Guide to World Poultry Trends, poultry production stood at approximately 115 million tonnes in 2016 and is expected to expand to more than 131 million tonnes by 2025. After the world has scoffed around 134 million chicken dinners every day, what happens to the mountains of discarded feathers?

The UK alone currently produces around 2,000 tonnes of waste feathers each week, which are generally either incinerated or processed using a system called rendering – steam cooking to make low-grade animal feed. Both processes are expensive, energy intensive and the latter, since regulations were implemented after the BSE crisis in the 90s, has very limited applications across the UK.

However, feathers are composed of keratin proteins and as such are chemically resistant, physically strong, lightweight, waterproof and thermally and acoustically insulating. Basically a natural, high-performance, sustainable material. While studying for her masters degree in innovation and design engineering, Elena Dieckmann began exploring a wide range of keratin-based waste streams, in particular that of chicken feathers.

Given the potential of the inherent physical properties of feathers, Dieckmann decided to investigate how they could be put to better use via a PhD project funded by the James Dyson Foundation at Imperial College. Here she hooked up with fellow PhD student Ryan Robinson, who has a background in biological sciences, and together they initiated a student project called Aeropowder.

After hundreds of prototype ideas and a huge range of testing the partners eventually developed a low-carbon conversion process to create feather-based products, concentrating on a novel feather-derived insulation material that is not only low cost and high performance but also environmentally friendly.

In 2015, Dieckmann and Robinson pitched their idea at the Mayor of London’s Low Carbon Entrepreneur Competition and bagged the £20,000 award, enabling them to turn Aeropowder into a startup company.

“Currently the majority of insulation products out there are based on synthetic foams,” explains Robinson. “Although very efficient, they come with an environmental cost as they’re derived from petroleum and other chemicals and then end up in landfills for centuries. Our feather-based insulation is a sustainable method to improve thermal efficiency of houses and also other thermal applications like packaging, for example.

"We’re also looking at using feathers as reinforcements in bio-composites to increase the strength of biocomposite panels and make them more lightweight, which will benefit areas like the automotive industry and general panelling.”

Aeropowder is currently concentrating on B2B, specifically targeting the construction, insulation and architectural industries that, in addition to showing a great deal of interest (and generating much needed revenue), also offer a lot of valuable advice and bolster the areas in which Dieckmann and Robinson are not as experienced.

“We are currently working with manufacturers, doing trials and refining our process, which we are hoping to get finished in a month or so, and then we can finish filing the patent,” says Robinson. “Once we have the finished product it will be tested by early adopters,” he continues. “There may be more tweaking and testing involved, but it’s all about proving the product step-by-step so that we can launch something absolutely perfect within the next year.”

While the UK is renowned for its penchant for tea drinking, the last 20 years has seen a substantial surge in the quaffing of coffee. In 2013, while studying architecture at The Bartlett, UCL, 22-year-old student Arthur Kay had a brainwave. Inspired by his training in designing sustainable cities, he came up with the idea of turning tonnes of waste coffee grounds into bio-fuel.

Instead of bumbling around in his dorm trying to uncover how to make an unproven technology work, Kay quickly identified that he needed particular expertise to turn his grand plan into what is now known as Bio-bean. Having scooped a number of awards from The Mayor of London Entrepreneur Competition, Shell and Santander, in 2014 Bio-bean went on to win the Postcode Green Lottery Challenge. In turn, this success pulled in over £2m from corporate financiers, enabling Kay to set up a coffee-recycling factory in Cambridgeshire.

Kay put together a team with a variety of skill sets – including oil extraction specialists and one of the few people in the UK with a PhD in bio-mass pelleting - and in 2015 Bio-bean launched a nationwide coffee-waste collection service.

Gathering grounds primarily from high-street coffee shops and instant coffee manufacturers, Bio-bean’s production plant now processes 50,000 tonnes annually. Its patented biochemical process extracts the approximately 20 per cent of oil content from the remnants of your cappuccino and converts it into bio-diesel, while the remaining waste is dried and turned into bio-mass pellets that can be burned and used for powering urban transport and industrial boilers.

Meanwhile in the US, Princeton economics freshmen Tom Szaky and Jon Beyer had a ‘Eureka!’ moment in 2001 that waste was a great business idea. Borrowing money from friends and family and using all Szaky’s savings, the duo bought a $20,000 ‘wormery’. This holds thousands of worms that when fed plant matter and waste food produce ‘castings’ that are the richest natural fertilizer on the planet. Szaky and Beyer fed the invertebrates with leftovers from the campus cafeteria and ended up producing hundreds of litres of organic and highly effective liquid fertilizer. Lacking the cash to package their product, they used fizzy drink bottles filched from recycling bins as containers and peddled the runny worm poo to local gardening centres from the boot of a car.

Realising the idea held great potential, Szaky and Beyer dropped out of Princeton and formed TerraCycle. With a $2,000 angel investment from venture capitalist Suman Sinha, TerraCycle began to win business awards and obtain further funding. Sticking to their guns regarding containers, they encouraged schools and local organisations to collect plastic bottles in exchange for proceeds and marketed their fertiliser product as “Waste in Waste”. As their company grew, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo gave TerraCycle a license to use their bottles and by 2005 their product was being stocked by major supermarket chains such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

The New Jersey-based company has since become an international leader in “recycling the unrecyclable,” using a multitude of dodgy waste materials to create new products. With eight offices around the world and over 120 employees, TerraCycle runs recycling/upcycling programs in more than 350,000 locations in 22 countries, including the UK.

Among its UK ventures, which include reprocessing biscuit wrappers and plastic air fresheners, TerraCycle, in partnership with Japan Tobacco International, has recently launched the Cigarette Waste Programme. Apart from being unsightly, the cigarette ends that litter our streets are also chock full of toxins – just one butt can contaminate an entire litre of water. Many are also made of cellulose acetate, a high-grade plastic also used in sunglasses.

The free recycling service allows private individuals, airports, hotels, pubs and so on to send cigarette ends to collection points or directly to TerraCycle’s recycling plant. Collected bundles of fags are then bagged up and transported to a wash plant for sterilisation. Organics (ash, tobacco, paper) are separated from plastic components (filters) using specific screens and are recycled as compost. The plastic elements are then shredded and mixed with other recycled materials to create a compound for usable industrial products like shipping pallets, sheet boards, signage and even tabletops.

Further upstate, on the aptly named Green Island, sits a company named Ecovative, founded by Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre, two mechanical engineers who graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Inspired by the pioneering work of American fungi botanist Paul Stamets, Ecovative produces building products made from mycelium.

Mycelium is a fungus produced from mushroom roots that converts hydrocarbons into carbohydrate chains that wrap tightly around pretty much anything that gets in its way – in Ecovative’s case, agricultural and crop waste.

Consequently, it can be used to make mushroom-based building materials that are tougher than concrete, have more insulating power than fibreglass and are completely compostable. Also, it can be grown in the dark over a period of only five days, so needs no external light source.

Initially a student project in 2007, Ecovative became a start-up producing a protective packaging product called MycoFoam (a green alternative to polystyrene) that won a $750,000 prize from the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. By 2009, word had spread and the company was able to obtain funding from grants, government agencies and strategic partners such as Dell and 3M. In 2012, the Sealed Air Corporation became Ecovative’s exclusive partner for the manufacturing and sales of mushroom packaging in North America. The 100 per cent organic packing has now gone global and is being used by corporate retail giants such as Ikea.

Ecovative has now extended its product range, adding an engineered wood alternative called MycoBoard that looks like chip board but contains no wood and zero petro-chemical based resins and launched a ‘grow it yourself’ mushroom material package to encourage private individuals to create their own products. It is currently working on a grant-funded product called MycoFlex, a biopolymer material made entirely of mycelium to replace ‘all things cushiony’, such as shoe soles, seat cushions, yoga mats and such like.

Going from having an idea to establishing a successful business won’t happen overnight, but it can be a fairly speedy process – as in the case of Aeropowder, which has gone from student project to ‘almost about to launch’ in only two years. All it takes is a bit of savvy and some determined networking.

“Always get out and speak to people, attend events and engage with the community,” advises Aeropowder co-founder Ryan Robinson, who is now working full-time on exploring the commercial potential of the company.

“I also highly recommend entering competitions: it’s a way of getting quick feedback about your idea and you can observe how the ‘system’ works and gain inspiration.”

Robinson also recommends contacting organisations like The Prince’s Trust and Virgin StartUp that will very quickly be able to advise you on whether or not your idea has potential. If your idea is deemed potentially viable, the next step is to learn how to set up a business properly. The paperwork side can be made easy with the aid of the Internet, but being able to artfully cruise over the bumps of a commercial enterprise definitely also needs to be mastered.

“Mingle with people who have just started ‘the journey’, get mentors and never be afraid to admit you’re new and ask questions,” adds Robinson. “Anyone who has ever started a business has been there, so strike while the iron is hot!”

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