Just as cars guzzle oil and spew out carbon dioxide, so does plastic manufacturing. Worse, landfills are overflowing with plastics that won’t degrade for hundreds of years, and harmful chemicals from some plastics threaten living organisms or eat away at the ozone layer.
Quite a few companies are working on, or already offer, plastics with safer properties. For example, some newer plastics are made from organic materials like sugar, biodegradable within weeks, or safe for animals (or the thumb-sucking variety of humans) to eat.
Novomer, of Ithaca, New York, says its manufacturing technology offers similar benefits, but with more precision and reliability in production. Where companies like NatureWorks rely on biological processes to make new forms of plastic, Novomer uses old-fashioned chemistry — think steaming vats and chain reactions. Compared to methods of biologically growing or combining materials, chemical reactions are more precise and reliable, says Novomer’s president, Charles Hamilton. This makes overall production cheaper, he said.
Traditional methods of making plastic have their basis in chemistry, but often rely on breaking down complex petroleum molecules and rebuilding them into new forms. Novomer’s zinc-based catalytic chemicals, discovered at Cornell University and licensed to the company, can start off with simple materials and force them to combine. This allows for easier customization of the end product.
Novomer’s process can use carbon monoxide and, conveniently, carbon dioxide, the gas most often accused of causing global warming. Incidentally, we recently reported on another startup that wants to capture carbon dioxide released during manufacturing processes. Calera, backed by Khosla Ventures, says it can reclaim escaping CO2 for re-use it in the process of making cement.
There’s also Segetis, another Khosla Ventures company we’ve covered that says it can build new materials from low-cost, commonly available feedstock, just like Novomer. However, it bases its products on biological materials (corn, for instance).
Novomer says it will use its funding identify a plastic polymer in its existing portfolio that offers a good business opportunity, and begin scaling up production of that polymer for the mass market. The company already manufactures and sells small batches of specialized plastics.
The $6.6 million funding was co-led by Physic Ventures and Flagship Ventures. Although it is Novomer’s first venture funding, it previously took angel funding and about $1.3 million in grants from several governmental organizations.
Update: This round also included a strategic investment from DSM Venturing, the investment arm of Royal DSM, a large material sciences company in the Netherlands. The specific amount of DSM’s investment was not disclosed, but it was part of the $6.6 million total.