It’s no secret that human kind’s fixation with plastic is costing the planet greatly. The rate at which plastic is ending up in oceans has been dubbed a ‘planetary crisis’ by the United Nations Oceans chief, while the EU plans to ensure that every piece of packaging in the continent is reusable or recyclable by 2030.
In New Zealand, Colmar Brunton’s Better Futures 2017 research found that build-up of plastic in the environment is the fifth biggest concern Kiwis are facing. But Veronica Stevenson believes she may hold the key with her biotech start-up born out of Wellington, Humble Bee.
Stevenson has a background in reproductive anatomy and structural biology, as well as a Masters in science communication. The idea for Humble Bee was inspired by a line she read in a scientific journal about a species of solitary bee which makes a natural nesting material that has the properties of plastic.
“This paper I was reading was written by an entomologist (an insect expert) and there was a throwaway comment from them: ‘The bees are using this material to store their larvae and managing to prevent fungal and bacterial invasions, as well as water damaging their developing brood.’ Then they’d written – ‘it’s kind of like cellophane, I wonder if it could be used as a plastic?’ And then went back to talking about the life cycle of the larvae,” Stevenson says.
She got hold of the material and had it analysed by AgResearch and found it had incredibly useful industrial properties, such as resistance to fire, acids, bases, oil and water.
Stevenson says she thinks the reason nobody has capitalised on the material made by these bees yet is they’re solitary, unlike honey bees.
“They’re tiny and they make it to their specifications, so it’s about trying to remove the bee from the equation and make it an appropriate scale for international markets,” she says. “That’s where the challenge is. That’s what we’re solving.”
Isolated coating floating on water surface in ultramicrotome used for visualising thin films.
The next step was to get up close and personal studying the process the bees went through to create the material.
Stevenson says to do so, she embarked on a crash course in “bee real estate design”, which meant creating an environment or ‘apartment block’ that the creatures would happily make a home out of in the wild to study them.
The bees weren’t exactly easy going in their requirements, either. Some of their demands include ensuring they didn’t have too many neighbour bees in their apartment block as they prefer solitude, as well as a dappled light effect inside, which Stevenson created via a laser.
Cellophane like cell lining of Colletidae picture by William Nye, Bee Biology and Systematics Lab; courtesy of James H. Cane.
Scientists from the Ferrier Research Institute have since been studying the bees and their internal anatomies and are going to try replicate a way of manufacturing the material in the lab using biomimicry, which is the imitation of models, systems or elements of nature for solving human problems.
While Humble Bee is early stage, pre-product, Stevenson’s aim is to disrupt the plastics industry – and she’s just been awarded a Callaghan Innovation project grant worth up to $120,000.
Stevenson taking photos.
The first market she wants to target is the outdoor apparel market, which uses a type of plastic (polymers) as a protective layer on top of their clothing from water and oil.
“This market is particularly sensitive to the issue of plastic pollution and the use of toxic chemicals in their products, because the people who are their customers love the outdoors,” Stevenson says.
“They don’t want their tent to have been made using deeply toxic materials that hurt the habitat they enjoy.”
After all, British fashion designer Alexander McQueen once said, ‘There is no better designer than nature’.
So, it makes sense that in order to fix a problem deeply impacting on the environment – plastic – nature’s design principles should be used as inspiration.
The next step for Stevenson’s team is capital raising so Humble Bee can manufacture a small amount based off the formula they’ve come up with, do a performance analysis and compare their synthetic version to the bee’s material and see how they fared.
At the moment, Stevenson thinks their synthetic version will be effective, but says it might not be affordable enough to manufacture at scale yet.
“We’re drowning in plastic so we’ve got to be cheap, and we’ve got to be competitive,” she says.
Stevenson says they’ll be using the genes that the bees use to make the material and develop manufacturing microbes, which will help them get to a disruptive price point.
"What I’m trying to do is create a company with a product that is so compelling from a performance and a price point that it’s going to be a no-brainer to shift. If we start at a really high level, the amount of plastic going into waterways and landfills will change immediately."- Veronica Stevenson
If all is successful, the plan after that is to go global immediately. Stevenson says she received a letter of intent from the CEO of a global chemical distribution company that says if Humble Bee pulls this off, any brand in the world will want to be talking to them.
She says the material could also be used in drug delivery, construction, aviation and consumer plastics and packaging, but the outdoor apparel market will be the main focus initially.
“One thing about these new regulations around plastic is they’re going to put more pressure on industries to find alternatives. Currently, the alternatives are expensive and not quite as good as the status quo, and that means there’s not enough industry incentive to shift yet,” she says.
“That to me is a real problem, so what I’m trying to do is create a company with a product that is so compelling from a performance and a price point that it’s going to be a no-brainer to shift. If we start at a really high level, the amount of plastic going into waterways and landfills will change immediately.”
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