A Singapore startup’s partnership with the University of Georgia to tackle the global scourge of plastic waste entered a new phase as the company Tuesday announced plans for a $260 million factory and headquarters employing 200 people in Athens.
RWDC Industries aims to produce biopolymers called polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHAs, at a price and formula that will accelerate their use as a replacement for single-use applications like drinking straws, potentially making a dent in the source of up to half the world’s plastic pollution.
Unlike petroleum-based plastics, which stick around for hundreds of years, PHAs can be made by fermenting used cooking oil and degrade naturally in the environment, said Daniel Carraway, an RWDC co-founder who earned a Ph.D. in forest biotechnology from UGA in the mid-1990s.
“The microbes in (marine) environments and soil utilize PHA as a source of nutrition, so they just consume it and it returns to CO2,” he told Global Atlanta in an interview. “Traditional plastics don’t really bio-degrade, ever. They say it takes 500 years, but even then it just breaks down into pieces too small for you to see.”
Micro-plastics are now being found in the recesses of the world’s oceans, causing more than a wave of consternation over the pollution of waterways that drain into them. Reading about floating trash islands as big as Texas and deep-sea creatures with particles in their digestive tracts has awakened the world to the problem. Regulators are starting to catch on, especially in Europe.
According to Dr. Carraway, the solution is less about knowing that better materials exist and more about producing them in a way that’s competitive with the plastics that make the modern world tick.
“Mankind has known about PHA for over a hundred years, but until now there really haven’t been very many groups that were focused on making it scale and at a price point that enables people to use it and create value with it,” said Dr. Carraway, who worked with International Paper for a decade before starting his first company in 2004.
In terms of versatility and environmental cred, he likened PHA to cellulose, the biopolymer that comes from trees and is now being used in Georgia to create anything from ethanol to coatings for smartphone screens.
PHA comes in some 150 varieties, but bringing it to scale takes a combination of specialized knowledge in material science, chemistry and large-scale manufacturing, Mr. Carraway said.
For the latter portion Dr. Carraway went to Asia, close to the world’s largest markets and factories. He quickly found a kindred spirit in Roland Wee, the 75-year-old co-founder he met through mutual friends.
The Singaporean engineer’s credentials spoke for themselves. Soon after independence, he had helped develop the city-state’s power grid and went on to found one of the world’s top 225 design-build firms, MEI Project Engineers.
The men bonded over their shared history as Eagle Scouts and a shared vision for using new materials to better the world.
Dr. Carraway said they knew they were meant to be business partners “within an hour of meeting each other.”
“We decided to put all of our creativity into putting our how to start a company that would make new materials available globally that would improve people’s lives and work,” he said. “His values and the things that are important him go along very well with the things that are important to me.”
RWDC — which Dr. Carraway joked was a “creative” combination of founders’ initials — has raised nearly $200 million in multiple funding rounds with investors all over the world. The latest investment came this week, to the tune of a $133 million Series B round from four global partners, including “Singapore-based venture capital firm Vickers Venture Partners; Ikea’s investment company; a Swiss pension fund; a Northeastern energy provider; and an industrial chemical company owned by Koch Industries,” according to TechCrunch.
That capital will be leveraged to finance the Athens plant as the first of many around the world. Some $40 million has already been invested in the 400,000-square-foot building that “almost certainly” will eventually become the global headquarters, while Singapore beachhead for RWDC’s expansion into Asia.
Another $220 million is to be spent in Athens, Dr. Carraway said. The first module for producing 5,000 tons of PHA resin will come on line by the of this year, at which point construction will begin on the first of four 25,000-ton production lines. The factory should reach full capacity by late 2022.
“We almost have to hide from customers because they’re chasing us down in search of these materials,” he said, so the goal has been to ramp up capacity instead of beating the drum about the capital raised. “The most important thing for us is to serve people well.”
A Research-Backed Decision
Georgia was always in the back of Dr. Carraway’s mind for the factory location, since he’d lived here and was doing research at UGA. But in weighing sites, RWDC made the state earn its head start.
“We didn’t a priori decide that it was going to be in Georgia,” he said of the factory.
Ultimately, though, the same collaborative spirit that helped get the company launched convinced its leadership that Georgia would be the right place to start manufacturing.
Dr. Carraway founded the company in 2015 and launched a companion foundation to fund collaborative research at the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute, where researchers including professors Jason Locklin and Branson W. Ritchie have worked in lock step with the company, almost as an outsourced research-and-development arm.
Dr. Carraway, who himself had pioneered multiple biopolymers and is an authority in the sector, said the partnership was so close-knit that he had to get it approved by the Board of Regents at the University System of Georgia, which worked with the company to craft it.
“Georgia has a business environment that is conducive toward not only starting new companies but then expanding the companies that we already have,” he said. “The state demonstrated that initially just with their willingness to form this new type of industry-university partnership.”
Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz said in a statement that this kind of collaboration is natural for the community.
“Athens is the home of the University of Georgia, and we have a long record of supporting innovation and industry. Like communities across America and the world, we want to see a reduction in plastic pollution, and we have high hopes that RWDC, with the help of the Athens community at their new facility, will be able to solve that problem.”
In 2018, UGA’s New Materials Institute and RWDC joined forces to win a grant from Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek’s foundation to develop a prototype of the first drinking straw made from PHA.
RWDC executives as well as researchers and students accepted the Liveability Challenge $719,000 grant in Singapore, where RWDC’s brand, Solon, was introduced in a real-world setting after certifying its environmental properties in Austria.
Now the focus is on replacing utensils, plastic bags and the coatings that resign otherwise recyclable coffee cups and containers to the landfill. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Georgia is one of the nation’s leading paper producers, with like Georgia-Pacific, Graphic Packing and WestRock based here.
Dr. Carraway said RWDC’s practical solution that doesn’t depend on changing consumers’ behavior, but on an increased consciousness about how to reduce the environmental cost of convenience.
“There’s a reason that these articles have been developed and invented: because they do enable us to have lifestyles that otherwise we wouldn’t have. We have just made bad choices with the materials. We’re not trying to take our societies back to the Middle Ages where everything was made with rocks and clay. But we’re beginning as a global society to recognize that we need to be making better choices about the materials that we use both in terms of human health and safety and in terms of our environmental stewardship.”
In a statement announcing the latest capital raise, Mr. Wee echoed that sentiment.
“We have had a global view of the plastic crisis since our founding,” said Mr. Wee, who is based in Singapore. “Consistent with that, we’ve planted a flag in both Asia and the United States, and we look forward to expanding our manufacturing of this innovative solution in Georgia. Right now, the COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented crisis, but we also recognize that, for many years, we’ve been headed toward an existential threat to our individual health and our planet due to pervasive and mounting plastic pollution. It must be addressed immediately and with a solution at industrial scale. That’s what RWDC can do.”