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March 9, 2023 BIZ SPOTLIGHT

New Haven startup imagines a world without plastic trash

PHOTOS | CONTRIBUTED Protein Evolution Inc. Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer Connor Lynn.

Building a world without plastic waste.

That’s the mission of the scientific minds and researchers behind a new biological recycling company, New Haven-based Protein Evolution Inc., or PEI.

Armed with more than $20 million in seed money from investors, PEI officially launched out of stealth mode in late October 2022.

Company co-founders applied their scientific know-how to develop new technology for plastics recycling. They combine enzymes and artificial intelligence to turn plastic and hard-to-recycle textile waste (like nylon and polyester) into good-as-new products.

PEI’s process is geared to significantly reduce waste and eliminate the need for fossil fuels required to make new plastic, according to its co-founders.

Whether it’s a water bottle, a car tire or piece of clothing, PEI develops enzymes that break down the waste so it can be recycled and find a new life in an economical and sustainable way, according to co-founder Connor Lynn, PEI’s chief business officer. The eco-friendly process creates new building blocks for PEI’s customers to create new bottles, new tires or textiles and other renewable plastic products.

Lynn described how the process works, using a water bottle that he doesn’t want to enter the environment.

“We use artificial intelligence to engineer an enzyme that can break down that bottle,” Lynn said. “We take our enzyme and grow it in fermentation tanks, so that we have enough of the enzyme to break down large quantities of material. We then use the grown enzyme to recycle the plastic water bottle, breaking it down into its building blocks. If plastic waste is like a chocolate chip cookie, we are breaking it down into the ingredients for a new cookie - the milk, the eggs, the flour and so on.”

How the technology was born

Lynn said he and fellow PEI co-founder and scientific advisor Jonathan Rothberg were inspired to create a solution to the world’s growing plastics crisis. Rothberg is the founder of a biotech incubator, 4Catalyzer, where Lynn was chief of staff. PEI’s other co-founder was Scott Stankey, who is no longer with the company. They founded PEI in 2021.

“Conventional recycling as we know it is inefficient and expensive, thus repelling companies from using recycled and sustainable materials,” Lynn said. “Protein Evolution was founded to minimize the amount of plastics sitting in landfills and create a better, enduring solution to climate change.”

Lynn, who holds a BA in economics from Yale University, and Rothberg, with a PhD in biology from Yale, landed more than $20 million in seed money from early investors and fundraising.

Protein Evolution Inc.’s first batch of leftover textiles from designer Stella McCartney.

Lynn said the initial round of fundraising was led by Collaborative Fund’s climate-focused Collab SOS, which happens to operate in partnership with fashion designer (and famous daughter of Paul McCartney), Stella McCartney.

Additional funding came from New Climate, Eldridge, Nextrans and Good Friends, which Lynn said is backed by the founders of Warby Parker, Allbirds and Harry’s.

Lynn said PEI has 20 employees in its New Haven headquarters in the East Rock neighborhood, along with a team of researchers based in France.

A fashionable undertaking

McCartney, who uses sustainable materials in her fashion and accessories collections, took a major interest in PEI early on.

Last December, McCartney partnered with PEI to create new materials and textiles by recycling her old, leftover textiles. That means materials, like leftover nylon and polyester that would normally get thrown out, will be transformed into fibers that can be used to make new clothing, shoes and accessories.

In a statement to Vogue Business, McCartney said the amount of textiles that end up in landfills is “truly shocking.”

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity committed to creating a circular economy and designed to eliminate waste and pollution, 87% of used clothing materials are incinerated or sent to a landfill, and less than 1% of all clothes collected for recycling are turned back into new textiles or garments.

“We must act today to protect our planet for tomorrow, and circular and regenerative solutions offer an optimistic look at the future of fashion,” McCartney said. “Through our partnership with Protein Evolution, we hope to pioneer a new type of polyester from old materials. Establishing climate goals is one thing, taking meaningful steps toward a more sustainable future is what truly matters.”

Lynn said PEI is laser-focused on polyester waste, which includes everything from plastic soda and water bottles and clamshell containers to polyester textiles found in clothing and rugs.

“Protein Evolution’s mission is to use biology to help the chemicals and materials industries transition to a lower-carbon, more circular economy,” Lynn said. “We aim to redefine recycling as we know it with scalable technology that breaks down plastic and textile waste, providing brands, manufacturers and petrochemical companies alike with an actionable path forward to reach sustainability goals.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal had an opportunity to visit PEI’s New Haven headquarters in January and said he was impressed by what’s going on there.

“Protein Evolution shows how Connecticut companies are at the cutting edge of innovation,” Blumenthal said. “What their team is developing to recycle plastic waste as high quality materials could be transformative for our environment, while creating jobs in Connecticut and building a thriving bio-economy. I look forward to following their future endeavors.”

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