After taking part in an ideathon aimed at providing solutions for a plastics-free future, Paul Riley embarked on a year-long search for materials or technologies to solve this challenge. The answer he found ultimately resulted in a start-up called Samsara Eco.
In 2019, Paul Riley, an Australian businessman with experience in venture capital and private equity business building participated in a workshop with the CSIRO, a top research organisation in Australia; Woolworths Group, one of Australia’s biggest retail organisations; and several others on the topic of a plastics-free future.
It was the start of a new direction for Riley, said Ellen Burtenshaw-Davies, Chief of Staff for Samsara Eco during a recent interview with Sustainable Plastics. According to Burtenshaw-Davies, Riley then spent the following year exploring possible options and examining various technologies and their potential readiness for commercialisation that addressed this issue. At a certain point, completely by chance, he came across an article about two chemistry PhD students at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, who were working on the development of enzymes that could degrade plastic.
He contacted their supervisor and by December of 2020, Samsara Eco had been founded. The start-up, an initiative of Main Sequence (a venture capital fund founded by CSIRO, a federal government-backed research organization, to help commercialise research projects), the ANU, Woolworths Group and Paul Riley, launched with a team of just four people, including the two ANU students, Matthew Spence and Vanessa Vongsouthi, under the name Samsara. In Sanskrit, Samsara literally means ‘flowing around’ or ‘world’, in reference to the cycle of life, death, rebirth and redeath – a fitting designation for a company developing technology for ‘infinite recycling’.
Over the next two years, the technology was further developed and expanded. The idea of using enzymes, said Burtenshaw-Davies, is quite obviously not new. Research teams - in the UK and Japan, for example - have also discovered enzymes able to degrade plastic; and they’ve been found in, among others, mushrooms, mealworms, and bacteria that degrade plastic - but, she explained, “none of those will really be able to be adapted for commercial scale recycling or degradation, because they evolved naturally.”
The scientists at Samsara Eco have found ways to optimise these enzymes and are now aiming to commercialise the technology at scale within the short term. They have created a proprietary algorithm to design new-to-nature enzymes specific for different types of plastics and specific for industrial processes that have a low carbon footprint, said Burtenshaw-Davies.
“And they have been designed to be very efficient, so we don't need energy- or carbon-intensive preprocessing steps for the plastic that we recycle,” she said.
The first enzymes designed by Samsara were specifically targeted at PET/polyester and these have already been validated and patented. Currently, the company is working to expand its enzyme library further.
“We will be announcing some new ones designed for plastics found in the packaging industry and in fashion and textiles, but also we are also looking beyond that, at other sectors, such as the automotive industry, as well,” said Burtenshaw-Davies.
Samsara Eco was able to focus on expanding its product portfolio due to the AU$6 million (about €3.83 million) the company raised in March 2022 in a funding round that was backed by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), along with Woolworths Group’s W23 venture capital and growth fund, and CSIRO’s Main Sequence Ventures.
The company has already attracted a few major companies as customers, for whom it will be recycling plastic at its precommercial facility. However, plans for a ramp-up to full commercial scale have already been announced. A new facility, which will probably be sited near Melbourne in Victoria and which will have a projected capacity of 20,000 tonnes, is scheduled to be operational from 2024. It will be Samsara’s first commercial scale facility - but not the last: “Our goal is to recycle 1.5 million tonnes of plastic by 2030’, said Burtenshaw-Davies.
Funding for Samsara’s expansion comes from, among others, a successful Series A funding round in October of 2022, participated in by existing investors Main Sequence, Woolworths Group’s W23 and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), as well as new backers Breakthrough Victoria, Singapore’s Temasek, Assembly Climate Capital, DCVC and INP Capital in which the company raised some AU$56 million (about €34.8 million).
Enzymatic technology makes infinite recycling possible
Samsara Eco has developed the technology in an incredibly short span of time, and this has not gone unnoticed. In the brief two years of its existence, the company has won various awards, including the Energy and Renewables category at the InnovationAus 2022 Awards for Excellence, where it also nabbed the title of Australian Hero; and the 2022 Banksia Foundation’s Ignite Award for a ‘technology that contributes to the development and well-being of human needs and institutions while respecting the world’s natural resources and regenerative capacity’.
The company’s proposition explains the enthusiasm: “Enzymatic technology means you can recycle plastic waste back to its original monomers, to create recycled plastic that is indistinguishable from virgin plastic, without fossil fuel feedstocks. This means we can stop depending on fossil fuel resources to make virgin quality plastic,” said Burtenshaw-Davies. “And we can do it at market recycled price, making it a feasible option for businesses.”