Startup aiming to reduce plastic reliance joins Cornell incubator

A company that originated in Syracuse and is aiming to use agricultural waste to replace the petroleum-based plastic liners in coffee cups, takeout containers and other consumer products has joined Cornell’s Center for Life Science Ventures incubator.

RETRN Bio joined the incubator June 1 to conduct research and polish a business plan, with the objective of decreasing the world’s dependency on plastic.

Cornell impacting New York State

“We want to confront chemical pollution by helping the paper-packaging industry displace outdated plastics with a new class of biodegradable coatings for food containers,” said Chris Thomas, CEO of RETRN Bio.

“We want to replace that small amount of plastic now found on paper materials with a waste-based, tunable polymer fiber that will be recyclable, fully biodegradable and completely natural,” Thomas said. “It can be broken down quickly in the environment without adding to our pollution problem.”

The incubator will provide laboratory space for the company, business-plan development expertise and a wide array of campus research resources – including academic knowledge.

“RETRN Bio is finding a way to make their green plastic in a flexible manner to meet a variety of industrial and commercial needs,” said Lou Walcer, director of the Center for Life Science Ventures. “The specs for every product will be different, but whether you’re manufacturing a coffee cup or a takeout dinner tray, the bioplastic lining must be flexible enough to accommodate the process.”

RETRN Bio uses low-cost agricultural waste – such as plant-based, fibrous wheat bran left over from breweries, or papermill excess – to bioengineer and create natural, proprietary PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) polymers that can be adjusted for different uses and manufacturing processes.

“Anything that originally came from a plant can be used because it is fiber-rich,” Thomas said. “The integrity and structural fibers of plants is what we use as our base material.”

Currently, food-container makers generally use polyethylene (PE) or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), and other plastics, to line packaging.

But about three years ago, Thomas and Ryan Scheel, now the chief science officer for RETRN Bio, imagined a better source: biological components. They sought to turn agricultural waste – such as gigantic piles of fibrous bran leftovers from the brewing process – into bioplastic by using bacteria.

As students at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Thomas and Scheel took their concept to the Blackstone LaunchPad program at Syracuse University.

Last fall, through the Cornell Center for Materials Research, RETRN Bio partnered with Juan Hinestroza, the Rebecca Q. Morgan ’60 Professor of Fiber Science and Apparel Design in the College of Human Ecology, and his students to refine how to upcycle agricultural waste streams and process them into biodegradable polymers.

Hinestroza is a faculty fellow at Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. Funding came from the JumpStart program, which supports small business in New York, while working with Empire State Development’s Division of Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR).

“RETRN Bio not only has a solid scientific background,” Hinestroza said, “but an unshakable commitment to provide real solutions to solve the massive problem of plastic pollution.

“Working with them has been a great experience,” he said. “My students in the Department of Human Centered Design benefit by seeing how fiber science knowledge and skills can provide unique solutions to global challenges.”

Walcer said the goal for RETRN Bio is to earn outside investment and achieve self-sufficiency, while developing jobs in the life sciences and bringing economic development to New York.

“It’s all about scale,” Walcer said. “RETRN Bio will be here at the Center for Life Science Ventures to take their laboratory bench-scale processes, use our lab facilities, scale it up, make it into an industrial-strength process and greenify everybody’s coffee cup and many other consumer products.”

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