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Startup Innovation Challenge

Food waste: a renewable source of plastic packaging [Interview]

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Synthetic biology startup Mi Terro extracts protein from plant-based food waste to create a flexible film that can replace plastic packaging. “This is a first-of-its-kind approach,” says the co-founder and CEO.
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The sixth edition of the Fi Global Startup Innovation Challenge, held at Fi Europe 2021, co-located with Hi Europe, in Frankfurt, gave startups the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a jury of R&D experts, investors, and major F&B industry company representatives. Mi Terro was one of the finalists in the Most Innovative Service or Technology Supporting F&B category, recognised for its home compostable, single-use plastic-alternative packaging materials made from plant-based agricultural waste.

We spoke with the company’s co-founder and CEO, Robert Luo, about the environmental and economic benefits of turning food waste into packaging, and untapping the potential of protein as a fundamental biomaterial building block. 

“I think recognition like this is very important for any startup,” he says. “If companies don’t publicise their work, then industry simply won’t know about it. Going to conferences like this is one of best ways we can exert our influence.”

Valorising food waste

Robert is a three-time entrepreneur, with a number of years of experience in business development, marketing, and sales. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, a Forbes Under 30 Scholar, and has been recognised as one of the Top 100 Asian American Emerging Leaders by theboadiQ. He is also an Entrepreneur Hall of Famer at the University of Southern California, and someone who can find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places.

“The idea for Mi Terro came about after a visit to my uncle’s farm in China,” Robert explains. “I noticed the amount of spoiled milk their farm couldn’t sell, and saw an opportunity to turn such waste into something more valuable.” Mi Terro was thus launched in Los Angeles in 2018, with the aim of turning agricultural waste into something valuable – a compostable biomaterial capable of replacing certain types of plastic. ”

“At the beginning, we used milk and plant protein to develop a textile fibre before focusing on certain types of plastic packaging,” says Robert. “There are many types of plastic used in the world, and thin plastic films, widely used in the food sector, tend to be cheap and very hard to separate and recycle when compared to PET, for example.”

Our inability to recycle these types of plastics, represents a significant obstacle to the achievement of a truly circular economy. What’s more, the challenges of recycling plastic films means that many companies are focused on more low-hanging fruit, such as improving PET recycling or replacing plastic straws.

Robert's Photo.JPG

Replacing plastic packaging

This is where Mi Terro can make a difference. According to Robert, the company is the world's first synthetic biology and advanced material company that utilises big data to create plastic-alternative packaging materials made from plant-based agricultural waste. “This is a first-of-its-kind approach,” he says.

Protein is extracted from food waste and modified to make a flexible film. A key advantage over using other source materials such as seaweed, corn and algae, is that the company is not competing with potential food sources. The proprietary fermentation process also offers high efficiency and low energy consumption compared to other processes.

“We can grow protein through fermentation, similar to the processes being used to grow cellular meat,” says Robert. “We can even use carbon to produce protein, so we can envisage a future where we are sucking carbon out of the atmosphere to make packaging.” 

The company is currently running two paid pilots. The first, with AB InBev, is turning spent waste into material for product labels. The second, with Unilever, is turning waste into plastic for water-soluble laundry pods.

“We expect these successes to be replicated with other companies,” says Robert.  “We are also currently developing an AI platform to analyse and genetically code the DNA structure of protein compounds not found in natural protein. This will enable us to developed the type of protein polymer we want to create.”

Mi Terro’s solution, believes Robert, is a win-win for everyone. Food waste is not thrown out but valorised, and fossil fuel-based plastic is replaced with an abundant and efficiently produced resource that does not require the destruction of the environment. Protein-based polymers could also be used as ingredients in cosmetics, pharma and aerospace. 

“I’m optimistic about the future,” he says. “There are so many people out there trying to tackle the problems we face like global warming. But this requires capital, and it requires new technologies like this.”

Image credit: Mi Terro

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