Biotech Innovation That Breaks Down Plastic and Feeds the Fish

by Diana Drake

According to researchers, 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans each year. This is a huge environmental threat, and one that people are addressing in different ways. Take, for instance, some cool news out of Dana Point, Calif., this week. Students at Dana Hills High School are working with elementary-school children to build a whale skeleton sculpture with single-use plastic bottles to raise awareness of plastics in the ocean. The finished sculpture will be 30 feet long, by 9 feet tall, by 8 feet wide. Senior Alyssa Boscardin told the Dana Point Times newspaper, “Many people don’t realize how big an effect plastic has on our oceans. Seeing it as part of a sculpture representing the carcass of a whale illustrates how deadly the problem really is.”

Boscardin’s sentiments most definitely resonate with Miranda Wang, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying cell and molecular biology, engineering entrepreneurship and philosophy. Wang is cofounder and CEO of BioCellection, a startup that uses biological techniques to create a new kind of fish food using plastic waste. She recently spoke with KWHS’s Nithya Kasi, a Wharton freshman, about her science-based business, her public-speaking experience, and how she defines success.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: Miranda Wang, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying cell and molecular biology, engineering entrepreneurship and philosophy, is cofounder and CEO of BioCellection, a startup that uses biological techniques to create a new kind of fish food using plastic waste. She’s here today to talk with Knowledge@Wharton High School about her life as an entrepreneur, as well as her involvement with TED [a nonprofit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading” that holds TED talks featuring invited speakers who talk on all kinds of subjects].  

KWHS: What sparked your idea to use biotechnology to solve the growing global problem of plastic pollution? And what kind of progress have you made in this area?

Miranda Wang: This started out when I was in high school. It was a really cool opportunity. I took a trip to a landfill the summer after my junior year. I think what really hit me was not just that the landfills are so massive or even just looking at our waste after it is taken out of the household, but looking at what I call the afterlife of plastics, and realizing that plastics are this tremendous proportion of all the waste that we have. [I also realized] from speaking to the people at the landfill that plastic is the main problem. It seems to have immutable afterlife: Even though the pieces break, they disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces. They never chemically break down.

At that time, I was an aspiring science student. I wanted to see if there [were] ways to pursue finding solutions for this environmental problem that has a lot of huge social effects — using science. There was a unique opportunity to do this during a science competition. So, my best friend at the time — and now cofounder [Jeanny Yao] — and I actually did this as a research project with Professor Lindsay Eltis at the University of British Columbia. And [through] this project, we ended up competing at the national level and then taking this to speak at the TED [2013] conference [while I was a high school student at Magee Secondary School in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada]. Throughout my entire time at Penn, I’ve continued working on plastic — the research for plastic biodegradation, as well as looking at the health effects of plastic pollution. That has led to this startup that we founded called BioCellection.

This startup was founded last year in May. And we’re in between a seed stage [the initial capital used to start a business] and a series A [a company’s first significant round of venture capital financing]. We’re about halfway finished building a genetically modified bacterium that can break down plastics about 80 times faster than the best known organism. We currently hold two provisional patents for this technology. One of the products downstream of the science is that after the bacteria breaks down the plastic waste, because of the chemistry that happens in the cell, the cell is able to do this in a completely non-toxic way. So, the cell protein can actually be used to feed fish. We’ve demonstrated a 73% mortality rate reduction in salmon fish this past summer through feed trials.

KWHS: Wow, that’s amazing. Delving deeper into your appearance on TED, that seemed like it was a major influence in your entrepreneurial interests. Can you share with us how you got involved with that and what you’ve taken away from your experience?

Wang: It was a really serendipitous opportunity to have been invited to speak at TED. I have to admit that before we were invited to get involved with that, I actually didn’t know very much about the TED conference. So, I was very surprised [during my] senior year of high school when I received an e-mail right after we competed in the science competition. I was in chemistry class and received an e-mail from the content director of TED inviting me to basically go for an audition event. It was 2012, and TED was doing a really cool multi-city tour. They visited 13 cities around the world and hosted 13 different audition events. About 300 different speakers from local areas auditioned.

We were invited for that opportunity. There was a live audience, and everybody got to vote for their favorite speakers. From there, we were selected to speak at the main stage. This is definitely a very unconventional path to becoming a TED speaker. But I think this experience has really exposed me to a lot of the leading thought leaders in this field and has in many ways motivated me to go on an unconventional course at Penn and become an entrepreneur.

KWHS: How would you say your high school experience shaped your interest in these fields, like entrepreneurship, public speaking and environmental protection? Do you feel like you had a chosen direction even before you graduated from high school?

Wang: Now that I think about it, definitely yes. In high school I was part of a leadership program that was my school’s version of a magnet school or an IB [International Baccalaureate]. This program trained me in a lot of skills for public speaking. It gave me a lot of preparation for teamwork and leadership. Now that I think back on it, a lot of these skills that I have are actually soft skills [that were developed in] early teenagehood. And there’s also my interest in science. I grew up in Vancouver, Canada. Vancouver is a place where people are very environmentally conscious. I was always involved in a lot of extracurriculars. My [BioCellection] cofounder and I were co-presidents of our high school environment club, and we built an organic garden from scratch in the front of our school. This wouldn’t have been possible if we didn’t have teachers in high school that supported us. All these things led to this combination of interests I have today from a very early stage.

KWHS: Taking that one step further, how has your college experience likewise shaped your interests and helped them to grow and mature?

Wang: Even after I spoke at TED, it was not obvious to me that people could make a living by doing science entrepreneurship. Even though you know there are people running biotechnology companies and biomedical-device companies, it’s not something I thought I could do, especially as someone who is still an undergrad and obviously has a long way to go to do some basic research in this area. Not that many people are working on plastic pollution. And nobody is currently working on a technology to solve the plastic pollution problem. So, it really wasn’t something I thought was possible until I came to Penn and started taking classes. My major is in molecular biology and one of my minors is engineering entrepreneurship. So, I took classes in both Wharton and also in engineering to really learn how to manage high-tech startups. Then I realized this is something you can learn, and you can tangibly apply an assortment of different skills to make your vision become a reality and make a high impact on the world. Penn has empowered me to do all of these things.

KWHS: You’ve spent a lot of time immersed in the entrepreneurial culture here at Penn, as well as working with high-caliber students and adults. What do you feel defines success? And what characteristics do you value in the people and entrepreneurs that you admire?

Wang: That’s pretty hard. One thing I value a lot in people I work with is sincerity. Some people that I really look up to — some of my best mentors — are the kind of people who the first time you talk to them, you just feel that connection. You feel like they are committed to helping you, and they’re very genuine about it. There’s that level of trust and rapport that builds in the first minute. I think every successful person I know has that certain, I would even call it charisma, to have other people be able to trust them and to really be able to behave in a consistent way, follow up and help people so that you can continue building on this relationship. In business, especially for someone who’s so young like me and so inexperienced, a lot of what I’m able to do depends on the relationships that I have and the mentors and ideas that I’m able to get.

In Silicon Valley, [people talk about] paying it forward. That means that before you go out and reach out to someone for help, think about ways that you can contribute to this community. It becomes more like everybody’s mutually helping each other, as opposed to I’m trying to take from this community.

KWHS: How would you define success based on your experiences?

Wang: That’s a very difficult thing to define. I think success can be explained in many ways. The most important thing to me is people doing what they believe in, despite the odds. [You have to] have the courage to do that because it’s difficult, especially being a young person in college where the culture — especially in the Ivy League — pushes us towards certain notions of success. I’m in biology, so obviously I was pushed towards pre-med, and at Penn in general, there is a lot of hype for Wall Street. When I realized that I didn’t fit into either of these niches, I needed to redefine my notion of success. To me, that was doing what I think is right and what I think is going to excite me every single day, despite going against the norm.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

How has Miranda Wang taken an unconventional path since high school? How does this relate to her definition of success?

What is TED? Using the related stories and links accompanying this story, research TED to find out what it’s all about. Miranda and Jeanny were high school seniors when they were invited to give their TED talk. What skills do you think they developed from this experience? How has TED helped their college and career paths?

Miranda talks about valuing sincerity in the business people she has met. How do you define sincerity? How might you start to better understand what she means by being consistent, genuine and building relationships?

10 comments on “Biotech Innovation That Breaks Down Plastic and Feeds the Fish

  1. I think this is amazing because I also know that plastic in landfills is extremely difficult to get rid of. Plastics take very long to break down and when they do they don’t chemically break down they just break into small pieces. I also thought it was great how the cell breaks down in a non-toxic way so the fish can eat it.

  2. i think this is amazing because plastics last a long time before they decompose. so this invention is amazing because it could change the world. it could completely get rid of the giant island of plastic in the ocean. yet at the same time it is feeding the fish in the ocean with the plastic it decomposes.

  3. This is an excellent, biodegradable solution so to speak. Congrats to the inventor(s). Much thanks and hope to hear more about this invention and others like this one in the near future.

  4. This article inspires me to start doing research to not only try to find and solve a problem to advance our society for the future, and to also find out what I would like to pursue in the future.

    • I agree, Vineeth. This initiative, which uses the ability to break down plastic and feed it to the fishes, is innovative and inspiring. Wang was inspired by a high school field trip to a landfill. She realized that the buildup of plastic was a large issue, because it does not break down chemically. Wang is developing a bacterium that breaks down plastic 80% faster by breaking down the cells into non-toxic material. When salmon were fed this plastic, their mortality rate went down drastically by 73%. She was invited to a TEDTalk, and the experience motivated her to become an unconventional entrepreneur. Science entrepreneurship wasn’t something that Wang thought she could do as a living. Although Wang realized the long path she has to go on before she can achieve her dream, Penn motivates her to keep going. Although people in biology tend to go into medicine or lab research, she realized it wasn’t for her. She had to follow her passions even if it wasn’t the conventional route.
      Wang’s story and your comment remind me of another article on the KWHS archive about Strella Biotech, a company that makes technology to predict the ripeness of fruits. Unripened fruits tend to ripen faster near ripened fruits, as fruits communicate with each other by using a gas called ethylene. The new technology senses this gas and alerts the user. This technology was created because it is estimated that around 40% of produce is wasted before it’s even consumed. Katherine Sizov was baffled by this and decided to work on a way to drastically reduce those numbers. Sizov majors in biology and does engineering internships, allowing her to choose her own path, whether it is working in a lab as an academic researcher or developing drugs for companies. I hope to similarly follow these two paths described in these articles, finding my passion for what I want to pursue.

  5. I find it inspiring that Miranda discovered a genuine passion for helping the environment at such an early age. As a high school student entering my senior year, I admire people with such passion for doing good. It’s amazing that TED gives people the opportunity to bring awareness about issues such as plastic waste in our waters.

    I live on Long Island, a mere half hour drive from the beach. Memories of beautiful beach days – surfing, swimming, and sunbathing – are tainted by the occasional plastic bag found on my foot after resurfacing from a dive. Aquatic organisms suffer from the massive amounts of plastic waste dumped into the ocean every year. Entire ecosystems are disrupted and destroyed because of this material with an unlimited lifespan.

    It’s incredible that Miranda and her team are working on a genetically modified bacterium, which decomposes plastic 80 times faster than any other known organism. With a 73% decrease in mortality rates for salmon, Miranda and her team are paving the way for innovative solutions to our plastic crisis.

    One final thought, I love Miranda’s view on valuing sincerity in relationships. I completely agree with her sentiment. Sincerity is the foundation to nurturing life long relationships. While not all successful entrepreneurs are sincere, the ones that are garner true relationships and thus, the potential for a happier life.

    • Glad you found this article and that it resonated with you, Colin. It remains one of my all-time favorite interviews. And I’ve been especially excited to watch the progress of Miranda’s endeavor post-Wharton. BioCellection is now Novoloop, located in Silicon Valley and going strong: Science, innovation and sincerity are a powerful combination.

  6. I think this initiative is quiet unique. She has started doing such inspiring things at an young age ! I also like the fact that she is working on a bacterium which has the capability to break down plastic and this is fed it to the fish. She also noticed massive landfills of plastic were a major problem because it cannot degrade without chemicals. So the bacterium that she and her team is inventing will break down the plastic by 80% which reduces the time of the plastic to decompose drastically. The bacterium is also non toxic so when they tested the bacterium on salmons their mortality rate dropped down to 73%. This is a very interesting and eco friendly way to decompose plastic and I absolutely love this idea as no one has been talking about plastic lately. If plastic is dumping is stopped then there would be no endangerment to marine life. But eliminating plastic from our environment will take a long time. Since 1950 we have created 6.3 billion tones of plastic and increasing we have recycled 9% of it and another 12% incinerated and now we are left with 4.9 billion tones. Plastic also accounts 10% of the global waste. 90% of all the plastic that exist is all on the ocean surface. So in the end I like the initiative that she is taking under her hands to eliminate plastic from our lives.

  7. After all these years of choking turtles and plastic-filled oceans, we finally have a redemption of sorts: a way to feed the fish. I find Miranda’s crusade to reduce waste to be both admirable and galvanizing. According to the University of Colorado, landfills take up 1,800,000 acres of land (not even accounting for trash in the ocean), 18 percent of which is plastic (potentially 324,000 acres). To make matters worse, the plastic particles that never break down can also become volatile organic compounds/ VOCs in the air, damaging human health when inhaled. To be able to take unrecyclable plastics and convert them into usable sustenance is a considerable step towards a more sustainable future.

    Given that the interview took place 6 years ago, I tried to track Biocellection’s progression with a quick search. Rebranded as Novoloop, ‘Biocellection’ is currently marketing its latest product, Oistre. They had expanded beyond fish food to create substitute materials for clothing, electronics, machinery, and even construction: only with the added benefit of having a lower ecological footprint and being re-processable. However, I believe that Novoloop can be expanded beyond that. In their documentary on CBC docs, Miranda and her co-founder Jeanny chronicle the process in which they took samples from the Fraser river and provided bacteria with only plastic particles as a food source. I wonder, could this process also work in sewage and water treatment plants? Sewage plants in major cities like NYC treat billions of gallons of water daily, which often runoff into local rivers either due to human error or natural disturbances such as heavy rainfall. With most water treatment plants already using things like sunlight and bacteria to purify water, it seems plausible that by using Novoloop’s processes, we could potentially break down waste in water for new purposes, whether it’s a material like Oistre, sustenance for fish, or perhaps even usable energy. Furthermore, if such a product could be made a public commodity (similar to Miranda’s vision of using her bacterium in household trash cans), we could break down waste before it even hits the sewer system.

    Granted, the idea holds a few caveats. On one hand, the process of finding such a bacteria could come up fruitless; there’s no guarantee that such a bacteria even exist or can be found. Additionally, we don’t know the cost of implementing these ideas. If the bacteria is rare or difficult to cultivate, it would be unobtainable for the average household, and I imagine such an implementation could also lead to expensive revamps in households and treatment plants. I also must also acknowledge that many people would be opposed to using products made from feces or other waste products, out of basic dignity. However, we can never be sure unless we try. These issues aside, Miranda and Jeanny have demonstrated their passion for the environment at the forefront of the environmental movement. With the progression that their company has been able to make in the past 6 years, I believe that this passion and inspiration is what will get us to the environmental redemption that humanity is due for.

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