“Since 2016, the challenges of oil price and securing a steady and reliable downstream biochemical partner, along with changing governmental policy, has seriously affected the rate of growth of the organisation and the industry in general.”
Avatar Sustainable Technologies takes paper mill waste and processes it into fermentable sugars that can be converted into commercial products. This includes biofuels and bioplastics.
Here, Bio Market Insights’ Liz Gyekye catches up with Bhavin Bhayani, Co-Founder of Avatar Sustainable Technologies.
Liz Gyekye (LG): What’s the story behind Avatar?
Bhavin Bhayani (BB): Waste solids from paperboard manufacture present a large problem imposing big economic costs and environmental degradation. The team at SUNY ESF initiated research into this with the idea of directing these wastes to higher-value products like biofuels or bioplastics.
LG: Before founding the company, what were you doing?
BB: In 2008, I studied for a PhD in paper and bioprocess engineering at the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science & Forestry (SUNY ESF). During this time, I also worked closely with Dr. Bandaru Ramarao, who is also a co-founder of Avatar. He was my PhD mentor. During that time, he was working as a Professor and the Associate Director of Empire State Paper Research Institute (ESPRI). ESPRI is a leading international research organisation in the pulp and paper industry that solves complex paper industry-related problems. Recently, ESPRI has pioneered the concept of the biorefinery and development of new forest-based materials to provide value to those materials before the pulping of wood.
LG: What’s been the biggest challenge in growing the company?
BB: There are numerous challenges facing the industry and the company. In the year 2016, Avatar was advancing quite smoothly, based on a circular economy model to procure waste from a major paper company and provide them with biodegradable polymers for their formulation in coatings and packaging. Unfortunately, the oil market sank and this helped to decrease the value proposition of these biochemicals. This also led to an unfortunate exit of our partner biochemical company. This was very unfortunate because we had been planning several projects with this company over the space of two years.
Since 2016, the challenges of oil price and securing a steady and reliable downstream biochemical partner, along with changing governmental policy, has seriously affected the rate of growth of the organisation and the industry in general. Furthermore, the exit of several previously highly invested biochemical partners has caused hesitancy on the role of investors and other strategic partners.
LG: What’s coming up next for your company?
BB: Avatar recently completed a project with National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) in demonstrating the Techno-Economic Feasibility of the project which concluded with encouraging results. Our next step would be to scale the process in-house at 50kg and later demonstrate the process at a partner site at 100kg biomass.
LG: What advice would you give to someone else looking to launch their own company/product in this space?
BB: Starting an organisation is a huge step, it can be exhilarating and taxing at the same time. A company is not just about the technology, it is about developing and maintaining relationships, solving problems and challenges along the way, and above all, bringing the value of the company to the whole gamut of stakeholders that can benefit from proper execution of the strategic plan. Also, being green by itself does not give you an additional benefit, you need to be economically feasible as compared to options currently available. With all things said, it is important to remember that building a company takes time. In essence, it is important to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
LG: What’s your favourite sustainable/bio-based product?
BB: My favourite sustainable bio-based product that is commercially available in the market is 1,3-propanediol (PDO). DuPont Tate & Lyle Bio Products has developed a proprietary process that uses plant-based feedstocks instead of petroleum-based feedstocks to produce 1,3-propanediol. 1,3 -PDO can be used to produce several consumer and industrial products including cosmetics, personal care, pharmaceuticals. My other favourite biopolymer is Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), which can be a biodegradable replacement for several petro-plastic-based products and also for medical and pharmaceutical purposes.
Ideally, I would love to produce such biopolymers that are produced from a waste stream, but that’s just my avatar!