The problem lies in the way we produce, consume, and reprocess plastic materials – Interview with Eleonore Eisath
“In a natural system, it doesn’t matter if you are morally good or bad – you just need to be able to understand the circumstances and take the evolutionary steps to survive in them.” Eleonore Eisath, the founder of Beworm has shared her insights about waste management problems and sustainable solutions to the plastics problem. She aims at contributing to solving the urgent issues we face by biocatalytic degradation pf plastic materials.
How do you see the global plastic problem?
Plastic pollution is not a clearly delineated, isolated problem, but an accumulation of many smaller and larger problems across the value chain. It goes from design of products that does not consider recyclability, to the ignorance of consumers, to the lack of innovative technologies in recycling. It can only be solved by creating a systemic change on all these levels and connecting stakeholders.
What do you think we should do in order to solve our waste crisis, including plastic pollution?
I think we should stop pointing fingers at each other to find somebody to blame for it and start working together to solve it. People love to blame somebody (for example the industry), when they realize something is going in the wrong direction. But simple solutions like a “plastics-ban” will never work for a problem with such a high complexity. Also, the term “plastics” does not mean a single material, but a broad range of synthetically produced polymers with different chemical structures, properties, and grades of recyclability. The materials are not the problem in this equation – we are. It’s the way we produce them, we consume them, and we reprocess them that leads to this crisis. That is what we need to work on.
When did you personally become interested in sustainability?
I grew up in the Italian Dolomites in a small mountain village called Eggen(Ega), surrounded by stunningly beautiful nature and a lot of animals. I always felt like I was just a small part of this huge system that works in a way that humans will never fully understand – and I noticed quite early that at some points this system was out of balance. That cause a feeling of unease in me, that started growing over the years. When I was fourteen that feeling turned me into a vegetarian, and step by step it influenced almost all the major decisions in my life. Finally, it made me also choose this risky and bumpy path over a stable, well-paid job. But I also look with skepticism at the current sustainability debate, which is conducted too much on a moralistic level. It leads to a division of society into “good” and “bad” people. In a natural system, it doesn’t matter if you are morally good or bad – you just need to be able to understand the circumstances and take the evolutionary steps to survive in them.
What does Beworm do?
Beworm uses this natural capacity of organism to adapt and translates it into an industrialized application. It is a process called biotic or biocatalytic degradation. We are tracking down microorganisms, that developed degradation mechanisms to survive in a plastic-polluted environment. Over the past years, over 90 of these bioagents have been identified. We isolated and identified a strain and a consortium (out of a worms gut), that can attack polyethylene, the world’s most used plastic material. Now we need to study the biocatalytic mechanism that causes the attack, which means that we need to find out which enzymes in their systems can split up the long hydrocarbon chains of polyethylene into shorter fragments. Once those enzymes are found, we can optimize them for industrial implementation. The final process will happen in a bioreactor, where the enzymes are mixed with the plastic. Ideally, the outcome will be shorter fragments (intermediates) that can be reused as biofuels, oils, waxes or to produce bioplastics.
To understand the process better, it’s useful to think about our own mechanisms of digestion. For example, there are people how can drink milk without any problems and people who just can’t. The difference between them is that people who can’t drink milk are lacking an enzyme called lactase, that splits up lactose. The magic is done by the enzymes and the same counts for biotic degradation.
How was the idea of Beworm born?
Beworm is the product of several pre-projects I have done during my industrial design studies at the Technical University of Munich, starting in 2017. The first one was a speculative design project, where we were developing futuristic solutions for a world in fifty years. In the research phase of this project I read my first paper about plastic degrading organisms and I felt like this could be a game changer in the fight against plastic pollution. I wanted to try it out, so I participated in an interdisciplinary course, that connected me with biologists and gave me access to a lab. After achieving the first promising results, I decided to write my thesis about it and dive deeper into the topic by doing research on the scientific, industrial, and social aspects that are involved. After my studies I was confronted with the tough decision to keep going or follow a more conservative path – I took the risk and have not regretted it ever since.
What was the process of preparing for the start of Beworm?
There is no process of preparing, it is learning by doing. I never planned build a startup, I just wanted to solve a problem and noticed that showing the environmental urge AND the economic potential was accelerating it way more than keeping it in a pure research context. Luckily, I found great biologists as co-founders and many other supporters within the Technical University of Munich and beyond. We have free access to the TUM Venture Labs and the Bio. Kitchen, office infrastructure and mentors to support us. I also have many entrepreneurs in my personal network, that I can ask for advice and learn from. Currently we are in a pre-seed phase and are preparing everything for an incorporation.
Who are you working together with?
We are working closely with the research facilities of the TUM, which is still our homebase, but we are connected to many external experts in the fields of biotechnology, waste management, plastic production etc.
We have established first connections with the industry, especially with polymer produces and chemistry firms, who are highly interested in the solution. As a part of the Greentech Alliance, we also work with other startups focused on sustainability and support each other.
What is the size of the team and how do you imagine growth?
We are currently three people in the core team and three students who support us.
How would you describe the values on which Beworm is based?
The core value of beworm is the problem-solving approach. We develop a technology to solve a problem, not for the technology’s sake or to become millionaires. That reflects in every small decision we take as a team: we try to understand what the issue is, discuss it and find a solution with the best arguments wins.
Also, we don’t want to support the “fake it till you make it”- mentality, that often gets promoted within the startup world. We prefer honesty and facts, which doesn’t exclude to have a big vision.
What are your current challenges and successes?
The main challenge is to find the right funding possibilities to keep going, but we have good opportunities in sight. The greatest success was the isolation and identification of plastic eating bacteria strains, that we can now keep working on. Also, we have been invited to present the project to major players and broad audiences, which is a key step for the acceleration.
What are your major obstacles and how are you planning to overcome them?
The major obstacles are the high risk and the long timelines. Biotechnology development in similar cases takes 5-10 year on average and you can never predict if your experiments will go well or not. That’s why we are building up a network of experts and external research for each sub-process that we are working on. We also need strong financial support from investors that think long-term and not just about the quickest exist.
What are you currently working on?
Currently we are working on the scale up of our isolation experiment, screening methods to find the enzymes and pretreatment methods to make the material better accessible for the microorganisms. We are also sharpening the business model, the market analysis, and the financial plan for upcoming funding applications. In autumn we will be part of the Impact Fest in Berlin, which is going to be a great gathering of Greentech startups and the industry.
What kind of awards have you won with the idea so far?
We have won the Biomimentic Idea Award, were finalists in the TUM IdeAward and have won the Road to Start Summit Audience Award.
What are your current plans and vision for the future?
The next important step is to secure the pre-seed financing, in order to be able to add more resources on the project.
My personal vision is to build up a company that provides a biotic degradation technology, but also other solutions to fight the plastic pollution. I have many ideas for side-projects in different stages which I would love to carry out. My dream is to build a system of solutions, that create a real impact.