Cambridge, England-based Xampla, which spun out from the University of Cambridge in 2019, uses protein powder to make a liquid resin for conversion to various products, which can be used as drop ins on existing equipment. The powder is the first plant protein-based solution for replacing plastics.
The core technology works in several applications: soluble films to wrap around dishwasher tablets and laundry detergent; microcapsules that contain fragrance for personal care and home products or that protect vitamins in food and drinks; and edible film wrappers that foods can be cooked in.
Now, after the technology’s 15-year R&D journey, plans are to scale production rapidly over the next 12 months beginning with a pilot-scale plant. Xampla is also preparing to roll out a microencapsulated product for a large soft drink company. And has entered an interesting partnership to explore possible applications in the agriculture space.
Most of the materials are made from pea protein.
“We have gone with this protein because it’s affordable, scalable, and food grade. But we can use any plant protein, including plant waste or byproduct material, and we are exploring using the latter two for non-food grade applications,” says Stanley Mitchell, Business Development manager for Xampla.
The non-food grade materials have been shown to work well in multiple applications. For instance, protein from fava bean hulls and potato protein, a byproduct of starch extraction, will work in film packaging and cosmetic applications.
“Agricultural processors often have to dispose these protein streams as waste. If we can give them a way to valorize them, that’s a win-win for both parties. This is the type of collaboration Xampla is looking to build as we scale up,” Mitchell says.
He anticipates more business to come in Europe, where microplastics will be banned in 2025, making room for its alternative resin technology to replace these tiny plastic beads hidden in products.
All Xampla resins can be formulated to match key attributes of plastic in specific applications. Film resins for instance can be formulated to match around solubility, heat seal-ability, solvent seal-ability, and can be engineered to have equal strength to low-density polyethylene films.
The high biodegradability is attributed to that the core material is protein, and is chemically unaltered, ensuring microorganisms in the environment can easily digest it. Whereas chemically altering entails cutting molecules, attaching them to other chemicals, or linking molecules together, which strengthens them but sacrifices biodegradability.
How it works is plant protein is placed in a processing vessel with water and organic acid, heated, and cooled, resulting in a new structure of the same chemical composition that can be poured into any downstream processing technique.
Scaling resin manufacturing is a challenge. Unlike with petrochemicals used to make plastics, there is no huge centralized well of plant protein under the ground.
Commonly, waste protein streams are produced in large volumes, but they are scattered across many locations, so the team is looking to co-locate resin production with partners who create the streams.
For specialty applications like microencapsulate or seed coatings Xampla is moving toward commercial launch, but scaling resin production for films will likely take longer.
“People are interested in working with new materials. But one of our biggest challenges is to provide confidence we can build manufacturing capacity initially. Film manufacturers want to be guaranteed if they switch to our material they will be supplied solidly for several years. It will take time. Time to move from sampling and demo volumes to larger scale production,” Mitchell says.
The startup is preparing to make microencapsulates containing vitamins to go into soft drinks for a key brand of global company Britvic. Mitchell sees this venture as an opportunity to mature the application.
“Our platform and process for microencapsulates is the same, regardless of the oil. So, we are in a good position to expand to other brands and applications in different industries.”
He cited agrochemicals, which are often encapsulated to decrease their volatility. Xampla actually recently entered a partnership with specialty chemical company Croda International and the National Institute for Agriculture to explore a resin replacement for seed coatings that protect seeds from pests and disease.
Tuomas Knowles, a professor of Physical Chemistry and Biophysics at the University of Cambridge, led the research that ultimately resulted in the core technology and continues as Xampla’s scientific advisor.
He explains what went into conceptualizing and advancing the innovation:
“In order to develop materials that could provide a similar level of performance [as plastics], we were inspired by some of the highest performance materials found in nature, such as spider silk. We then identified that proteins, one of the most abundant materials in nature, can be engineered to produce materials with similar performance to synthetic materials, but would fully biodegrade in the environment,” he says.
“We are confident that our technology has all the elements to provide a scalable and completely and rapidly biodegradable solution, as it relies on widely available feedstocks and doesn’t require challenging processing conditions.”