PlantSwitch Lands Millions to Advance PHA-like Polymer

PlantSwitch founders Dillon Baxter and Maxime Blandin are on a roll, having secured $19.5 million as of late November to advance their carbon-negative technology that makes biopolymers from agricultural waste.

December 4, 2023

5 Min Read

PlantSwitch founders 29-year-old Dillon Baxter and 26-year-old Maxime Blandin are on a roll, having secured $19.5M as of late November to advance their carbon-negative technology that makes biopolymers from agricultural waste. They say their resins perform like polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), which breaks down in more settings and ranks higher in performance than the market forerunner, polylactide (PLA), but they say they can make it cheaper than PHA.xx

Production begins in early December at the young entrepreneurs’ newly acquired Sanford, North Carolina facility, which will have a 25,000-ton-a-year capacity, starting at 5,000 tons and stepping up in quarterly increments over about a year.

PlantSwitch’s compounds are shown in labs to degrade like PHA, breaking down completely in countertop compost machines in eight hours and within three months in commercial compost conditions emulated in labs.

While Baxter and Blandin await results of field testing in commercial compost facilities they believe, based on the material’s chemistry, that it will biodegrade in these facilities and in most natural environments within months.

The manufacturing process incorporates agricultural byproducts such as rice husks, wheat straw, and other cellulose-rich byproducts, which are blended with other biopolymers to lower the cost.

“When you create a solution to a problem like petroleum-based plastics, it’s important to not inadvertently create more problems, and we were careful to avoid doing so,” Baxter says, commenting that using agricultural waste rather than primary crops is more economical and business friendly. Ag byproducts do not compete with food sources, and they provide farmers a potential revenue stream for what they typically landfill or burn, or at best send off for low-grade animal feed.

A $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will fund work with underserved producers to grow hemp and convert it into bioplastic products, as well as to develop a system to track the manufacturing process’ carbon footprint via a lifecycle analysis (LCA).

“We will be able to calculate upstream and downstream emissions from production in real time and in detail. By looking at data as we are producing, we can make adjustments to optimize the process,” Baxter says.  He anticipates the LCA feature will be a bonus for his targeted customer base.

“All of these companies— especially larger ones—have had their feet held to the fire around their emissions profiles and are looking to reduce emissions wherever they can. Not only will they be able to lower their Scope 3 emissions, but they will have another tool to show it,” he says.

As the demand for more sustainable plastic alternatives accelerates, pioneers like PlantSwitch are hopeful for a windfall. Today, bioplastics make up less than 1% of the 390 million-plus tons of plastic cranked out annually, but European Bioplastics estimates that global bioplastics production will reach about 6.3 million tons in 2027, representing a 4.1-million-ton increase from 2022.

As production takes off, World Wildlife Fund is among environmental advocacy groups heeding caution, stating that while emerging bioplastics may have environmental advantages over their fossil-based counterparts, those advantages depend on the feedstock, production method, product lifetime, and end-of-life treatment. WWF further advises that their true value hinges on their proven ability to work as drop ins to existing infrastructure.

Aiming to corner every potential market, PlantSwitch has developed hundreds of formulations encompassing different products with different performance profiles that Baxter says can work on any equipment.

“No plastic product is made exactly as others. And biopolymers perform differently in each system. We have a baseline and can modify the formulation depending on what customers are making and what process they use,” he says.

PlantSwitch’s Sanford production facility will also house a lab to explore more potential feedstocks—there are over 100M metric tons of agricultural byproducts produced in the U.S. each year, so there’s plenty to vet to determine which will have the best economic and environmental payoffs.

For now, the partners are homing in on injection molded resins and on developing thermoformable resins, which Baxter believes will open another segment of the industry.

PlantSwitch is executing long-term contracts with a few unnamed feedstock providers; has offtake contracts with what Baxter calls “some leading foodservice and retail providers”; and is developing products with cosmetic and consumer packaged goods industry players to qualify material.

Sanford Growth Alliance (SAGA) has connected PlantSwitch to local agricultural producers, production facilities, and researchers at North Carolina State University.

The organization anticipates PlantSwitch’s move to Sanford will jumpstart new production development and spark healthy collaborations— both between farmers who will be able to turn a waste stream into revenue, and finished goods producers looking for pellets to feed into their injection mold equipment.

“Keeping with Lee County’s history as a community of makers, SAGA supports existing businesses as they grow and change as well as embraces new technologies and innovation that fit our community’s needs and contribute to its success,” says Crystal Gaddy, Business Retention & Expansion manager at SAGA Economic Development.

PlantSwitch fits well into the “maker” fabric of Lee County in her view.

“Their technology can bridge our agricultural roots to a new, innovative market. We are excited to see the growth and potential of this visionary company, right here in Sanford.”

Originally thinking he’d become an engineer, Baxter swerved to business and finance, which is paying off in strategizing a plan with a unique market position. And it’s provided him with the know-how to orchestrate a hefty capital raise. Though he still engages the engineering part of his brain.

“To create the best solution, you have to understand from a technical level the different polymers and applications, so I am involved in developing the technology while concentrating on what the market needs and wants and what research we need to do to hit those criteria,” he says.

It’s about focus.

“As a start up the only thing you have to be able to compete with large companies is focus. So, my main job is making sure we are focused on what we need to do in order to be successful.”

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