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Ambercycle: Using microbes to eat plastic and produce chemicals

San Francisco, United States
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
for profit
Project Stage:
$10,000 - $50,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Ambercycle makes microbes that can eat plastic. Our microbes produce chemicals when fed plastic. These chemicals are the raw materials for polyesters. By starting with waste plastic instead of oil, we can make cheaper raw materials for polyester manufacturing that are 100% renewably sourced.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if we could make microbes eat plastic and produce useful chemicals instead of throwing it all away?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

We are addressing 2 problems. The first is inefficient disposal of waste garments. The second is sourcing garments from sustainable chemicals, instead of directly from petroleum.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We are engineering microbes that convert most waste plastic materials into raw materials for polyesters. Our process produces raw materials that can be used to make 100% renewable polyester that has the same quality as virgin polyester and, at scale, will be cheaper than petroleum-based polyester. We think we can do this by starting with waste plastic, a zero cost feedstock.


LAUNCH2020 Top Fabrics Innovator
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

The ability to reuse polyester fabrics is hard. Most polyester fabrics, if they are blends or not easy to deal with, end up in a landfill. A fraction of pre-consumer polyester waste and a majority of post-consumer polyester waste end up going straight to a landfill, as polyesters can't be downcycled multiple times. Often times the manufacturer has to pay a disposal fee. The garment manufacturer would give us the waste fabric instead. We would convert the fabric into commodity chemicals, and sell them back to the companies that manufacture fabrics. This would allow for the garment manufacturer to reduce environmental impact as well as make fabrics that are 100% renewably sourced.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

We have just developed the proof of concept for our biological process. We are starting to test different waste fabrics to determine efficacy of our process. We've recieved grants from the Lemelson Foundation, the Schmidt Family Foundation, and Y combinator to develop our R&D. We are beginning to critically determine how our solution can fit into existing waste disposal systems, and provide chemicals for the fabric manufacturing industry. Our vision is to enable all fabrics to be made from 100% renewable chemicals. We want to work with chemical companies to start scaling our process, with the goal of co-locating facilities near fabric waste streams.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

Developing relationships with chemical and fabric companies to begin scaling our technology. We have a significant risk variable in cost, and are really focused on figuring out how we can produce cost-preferable textile raw materials. We really think fabrics is a good waste to deal with, as it's smaller in size to other commercial plastics application and there is significant attention being paid to CSR movements by companies such as C&A.

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

We anticipate revenue from sale of our chemical to begin late 2017. We are planning on raising equity financing to scale our technology. We anticipate roughly #30M in total invested capital will be required over the next 6-8 years to become cash flow positive.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

There are many companies that are looking at waste management and chemical synthesis separately. We are combining two business models in an attempt to drive favorable economics. Technically, there are companies that currently employ the sort of technology we are using, as well as companies that redirect waste. Our innovation is in going from the waste material all the way to the chemical.

Founding Story

Ambercycle started when Akshay and Moby were studying at the University of California, Davis. At school, a large emphasis is placed on sustainability, so Akshay and Moby applied their technical expertise in biochemistry and computational biology to design microbes that could carry out unique reactions. After talking to faculty and prominent figures in the biotech industry, Ambercycle came together. It wasn't till after hundreds of hours were spent in the lab that we identified a unique pathway that can make special microbes metabolize plastic.


The team is Akshay Sethi and Moby Ahmed. We both just graduated UC Davis in June 2015, and are working on the venture full time. We have set up a lab in San Francisco, and are very capital efficient, with about 4 months more of runway. We both turned down Ph.D. programs, as we think our ability to make a microbe that eats plastic speaks louder than a degree from a prestigious school. We are determined to solve the problems facing polyester materials and won't stop working until we do.
Value Chain: Where does your work fit into the apparel value chain? [check all that apply]

Raw Materials, Manufacturing, Consumption.

Your Role: What is your relationship to the apparel industry? [check all that apply]

Researcher, Technologist.

Target Population: What stakeholder groups do you engage or empower in your work? [check all that apply]

Brands, Corporations, Factory Owners, Retailers - Mass-merchandise Chain, Technologists.

● Intervention Focus: What are you trying to achieve / influence? [check all that apply]

Conscious Consumerism, Environmentally Sustainable Practices, Recycling or Circular Economy, Transparency.

Lever for Change: Select up to 3 ways your work is helping to transform the industry.

Advocacy, Standards, Technology.

Is your project targeted at solving any of the following key barriers?

Sustainability is Not Yet in the DNA: Fast Fashion’s Current Model Disincentivizes Value-Driven Economies.

Does your project utilize any of the innovative design principles below?

Disrupt Business as Usual: Target Key Players Who Can Influence the Bottom Line, Transform the Chain into a Web: Link Unlikely Sectors that Open New Pathways to Sustainability.

Innovation Inspiration: When you first conceived of your project, did you think of it as applicable to the apparel industry?


If you answered "no" to the previous question, which industry was your project originally aimed at transforming?

Energy, Sustainable agriculture.

● Replicating in the Apparel Industry: If your project didn't initially target the apparel industry, how are you specifically tailoring it to do so now?

We are targeting waste streams that are from garment manufacturers.

Are you nurturing or inspiring others to be changemakers? If so, how?

We think our story is inspiring, and are trying to share it so others can learn from our mistakes.

● Tell us about the partnerships that enhance your approach. How have you collaborated with others in the industry to increase your impact?

We are working with one of the largest fabric manufacturers in North America