Talking Engineering 09: Simon Hombersley
Natural Alternatives to Single-use Plastics

Conducted by Max Hersov, March 2022

Every year, Europe alone releases into the environment the microplastic equivalent of 10bn plastic bottles. Much of this ends up in the ocean, where they are ingested by marine life, blocking digestion and affecting nutrition as they work their way up the food chain. Xampla (a spin out from the University of Cambridge) has created the world’s first plant protein replacement for plastic for commercial use and their next generation material performs like synthetic polymers but decomposes naturally and fully, without harming the environment. Max Hersov spoke to CEO, Simon Hombersley who described Xampla’s mission to replace everyday single-use plastics and thereby address the global problem of microplastic pollution.




Max: What is the key thesis behind your business – what is the big problem that Xampla is solving and how are you going about this?


Simon: Plastic pollution is one of the biggest issues facing our planet. I think that consumers are deeply troubled by the amount of pollution that we create, particularly in our oceans. That is what we are setting out to address. Xampla is specifically focusing on the most polluting plastics, such as single-use plastics and microplastics. These are plastics that can’t be recycled, so the only solution is to replace these materials with something which does the job but causes no environmental harm.



Max: So, what exactly is this material that Xampla has created?


Simon: If you’re going to move away from oil, plants must become the feedstocks. Plants have two building blocks: carbohydrates and proteins. Carbohydrates, predominantly polysaccharides, are quite commonly available and people are already using them in all sorts of applications. They are not very strong or robust and so this means they must be chemically modified in order to provide useful material properties, but this then compromises their end of life. Now proteins are very high-performance materials naturally – they are the performance materials in nature. So what we have developed over 15 years of research at the University of Cambridge and then for a few more years within Xampla is a way of taking those commonly-available plant proteins and engineering them into high-performance materials which, critically, are not chemically modified. So, if they leak into the environment, whether that is the ocean or the soil, they cause no harm. And that is unique – we are the only company in the world doing this.



Max: Given the scale and urgency of the problem which many companies must be focusing on, how is your company is so unique?


Simon: I think that we’re the UK’s first university spin-out to become a certified B Corp[1], so we’re an ethical business – we balance profit and mission. Plastic pollution is not just one of the biggest problems in the world, it is also the biggest commercial opportunity. We have got multi-billion dollar markets where there are no existing solutions which are dominating, and that is why my goal as a business is to turn Xampla into the category leader in the replacement of plastic. I want people in ten years’ time not to be thinking about plastic at all – they should be thinking about our materials.



Max: Do you think that changing from plastic to Xampla’s materials will be easy, or are there certain issues which are significant barriers to change.


Simon: I think that this is the challenge for all of us in the space. We have identified various barriers, and the principle one is scale. Our materials can be made in a relatively easy and scalable process, but plastics is an enormously fragmented industry, and there are many conflicting agendas and vested interests. Our plan is to work as far as possible with existing supply chain partners, so our materials simply drop into existing plastics manufacturers. That’s essential, because the infrastructure which is going to make ‘plastic’ in 20 years’ time has already been built The material that we make is a resin and it looks like the standard resins from which they currently manufacture plastics and so we can just drop it into the existing process. Others in this sector think that they need to build a multi-billion dollar plant to reach economies of scale. We have a material which can reach economies of scale far sooner, with a smaller-scale manufacturing process.



Max: What is the immediate focus for your business and what is the current scale of operations


Simon: We have three launch products. One of them is already in production and we have customers – an edible micro-capsule to put vitamins into soft-drinks. It’s a weird one, but if you replace plastic with a material that is a food, you can start blurring the lines between what is packaging and what is food. We have a second application which is based on the same platform – it is a capsule which is directly targeted at microplastic pollution and that is currently in development and trials with major partners. The third is our first single-use plastic application, which is a film. The common dishwasher tablets that you’re familiar with that come in a ‘soluble’ plastic wrap – that material is actually a pollutant that goes straight into the water. We have developed a replacement which again is in trials with customers and is probably about 18 months off scale up and launch.



Max: Fascinating. Things that you wouldn’t immediately think about when you think about plastic pollution but are major contributors nonetheless.


Simon: Yes, these ones you don’t really see are your most polluting plastics. Your Coca-Cola bottle may be a problem, but if you drop it into a recycling bin in Copenhagen it will probably get recycled. But these single-use sachets and plastic films – these are the sorts of plastics that we see on the beaches in Indonesia, these are the microplastics that we are now finding in the Antarctic, in multiple ecosystems, the food chain and ultimately we are now finding out their impact on human health. Microplastic particles have been found in the placenta of unborn babies, so clearly this is a really serious health issue.



Max: Clearly a much bigger problem than people might realise. Is the main driving force behind your business the desire to save the planet, or to protect people?


Simon: It’s both – the sense that we might have had up until even the turn of this century, that we can treat the planet as we like and it will all be OK has gone. I think that we now all recognise that we are part of one ecosystem – if we harm the planet, we harm ourselves. But at the same time, plastic does amazing things – I am not arguing for the end of plastic entirely. I wouldn’t go into a hospital without plastic. There are various plastic applications which should continue. The problem is that we haven’t costed the use of plastics properly. We have treated them as a practically free resource. That in a mere 70 years, one lifetime,  is what has created this huge problem.  But science can solve this problem. And this is what motivates us as a group of scientists We are actually solving a real-world problem, which will have a huge impact on people’s lives.



Max: It sounds to me that what you’re developing is a dream come true – something that everyone is searching for – a slam dunk. Still, there must be limitations to your technology?


Simon: I think that the issue is more around the greenwashing and the complexity of the space. There are many companies with materials which they claim are better for the planet. The reality is that most of them are not telling the full story. There are compromises which lead to problems at end-of-life and terminology can also mislead – words such as ‘biodegradation’. These standards and this language hides more than it reveals. We can engineer Xampla’s materials to deliver various functions and performances but can’t do everything. We are not trying to replace plastic bottles, that’s outside of our reach. However, in our focus area of microplastics and single-use plastics, we actually have an extraordinary material which can replace the applications we are targeting now, and we have strategies for how we can roll those into a wider area. So there are issues such as scale and pricing, as with any transition away from any established way of doing business, but none of them is insurmountable.



Max: Going back to the technology itself and production. How are you going to be sustainable in sourcing the raw materials for your resin. If your ultimate goal is to replace almost all plastic, that’s a very large scale vision, and any resource would be heavily impacted when utilized at such scale. How are you planning on being sustainable?


Simon: I think that is an incredibly important long-term question for the entire sector. If you move away from oil, you start growing plants, inevitably that has got land use questions, and then that starts to affect things like water resource sustainability, fairness, access to land, a whole range of wider ethical issues. We have an extremely efficient high-yield process, so there is no waste in our products, which is a positive. Nonetheless, for the next stage, we are looking to see how we could make materials out of agricultural waste and co-products. We are already making materials out of rapeseed cake which is a waste product. For a future phase, we are looking into whether we can develop specific crop varieties, which are actually optimized for our needs, but require less soil, use less fertilizers and so forth. Then there are already companies which are synthesizing proteins from carbon dioxide waste gases from industrial plants, so that’s in a zero land use, fully sustainable carbon capture feedstock, which is actually the ultimate in the long term for a company like Xampla.



Max: As a start-up, what are the main tailwinds and  obstacles impacting your business?


Simon: The two biggest drivers are consumer and regulatory behavior. A few weeks ago the UN Treaty on Plastic was announced. That is very significant reflecting a global awareness that plastic is harmful and needs to be discouraged and taxed. But the main driver is consumer behaviour – what do customers want. Companies like Unilever, which buy 800 000 tons of plastic a year, are very consumer sensitive. If their consumers tell them that they are no longer willing to put up with plastic then Unilever needs to find solutions. And they are. Such companies are actually ahead of national and global legislation in their programs to phase out plastic. The challenge is that replacing the supply of say 800 000 tons of plastic to one of the world’s largest companies is not going to happen overnight. But, as I say, Xampla has got a uniquely differentiated technology. We’ve got products that actually deliver and we have got perfect end-of life, so we’re well set but it is going to take time. It can be frustrating when you’re running a start-up, needing to steadily build credibility and scale but that’s just the way it is.



Max: What was your personal journey to becoming CEO of Xampla?


Simon: I started my first business 20 years ago, and that was a clean-tech startup, so this is what I do, and I guess the reality is that I think that climate change and our planet’s health is the biggest issue facing our generation. I have developed spin-outs from Oxford and Imperial, so this is sort of a natural progression. But I would say that Xampla is unique. It is a perfect bit of research coming from one of the world’s leading universities, and at absolutely the right time.



Max: I suppose timing is one of the most important issues for a start-up. What have you learnt from your journey so far?


Simon: I think the main message for people doing stuff for the first time is that it’s going to take you a lot longer than you think. And especially in the world of clean tech, there are some solutions which are purely digital, but actually most of our business involves physics and chemistry – real world technology and processes. And that just takes a longer time. Be careful about reading stories about university entrepreneurs who are suddenly billionaires, because climate technology actually takes much longer to get traction.



Max: What would you like to say in closing?


Simon: I would say simply that science solves real problems. STEM is part of our solution to the problems we have created in the past. What we all need to think about this when we’re studying science or developing careers in science is ‘what is the impact, where can we actually help the world, where can we make a difference?’


[1]A B Corp is a business verified by B Lab to meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.

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