Calyxia bags $17.6M to tackle the global microplastics problem

Our world is drowning in human-generated microplastics. And while these tiny fragments of non-biodegradable plastic — floating in the sea, embedded in the soil — are hard to see with the naked eye, they pose a gigantic threat to life.

Inexorably, plastic pollution is finding its way into the human food chain, with unknown implications for our health as we consume fragments of plastic that wash into our water supplies or have been unwittingly consumed by the fish and other sea creatures that we eat.

Research has shown that microplastics are harmful and even fatal to aquatic creatures, causing fish to die before they can reproduce or stunting their growth as they fill up on fragments of plastic instead of food.

The health impact for humans of increasing consumption of plastic is clearly not good. (Microplastics have, for example, been shown to be a vector for other harmful stuff — trapping heavy metals and other pollutants.)

This seemingly invisible pollution in soils is equally problematic for sustaining life — because microplastics degrade soil fertility and diversity, impoverishing the soil’s microbiome and reducing the amount of food that can be produced from farmed land. (And with a growing human population to feed that’s another crippling sustainability challenge flowing from our habit of littering the environment with plastic dust.)

Paris-based greentech startup Calyxia thinks it has an answer to humanity’s microplastics problem — and is targeting this planet-wide pollution crisis with novel chemistry.

It has developed what it bills as “environmentally friendly” and “advanced performance” biodegradable microcapsule technology, which it says can reduce the amount of harmful microplastics that human activity is putting into the environment — assuming, of course, widespread take-up by manufacturers.

The 2015-founded startup is now announcing a €15 million Series A (~$17.6 million) funding round, led by the impact investor Astanor Ventures, as it gears up to get its first products to market this year.

Commenting in a statement, Hendrik Van Asbroeck, partner at Astanor Ventures, said: “Beyond the already enormous feat of decreasing microplastic pollution into our ecosystems, Calyxia’s technology will dramatically reduce the impact of the global agrifood, home care and advanced materials industries. With a deeply mission-driven team, extensive technological expertise, growing product pipeline, and eco-friendly manufacturing process, Calyxia is poised to make an exponential impact on a global scale.”

The round brings Calyxia’s total raised to €23 million, with earlier backing from business angels, and through the award of a number of grants, including European Commission SME Instrument (2018), BPI Innov’Up Leader (2019) and BPI Plan de Relance awards (2020).

Some of Calyxia’s initial partners are producing fast-moving consumer goods (specifically laundry liquids) and “crop protection” for agriculture.

The startup says it’s partnering with “leading” (top three) manufacturers in Europe and globally in these target sectors. (It can’t disclose the partners yet for commercial reasons but, certainly with the laundry liquids, its customers will be household names.)

On “crop protection”, this catch-all label can refer to chemicals like insecticides, herbicides and pesticides but also to enzymes, pheromones and “bio-inputs”, depending on the specific product. And Calyxia co-founder and CEO Jamie Walters tells TechCrunch it’s committed to only working with partners whose products don’t have other “ecotoxic” problems.

“As a company our values — in fact, our mission — is to build a safer, superior and sustainable future for all,” says Walters. “So we do not work with any pesticide that is unsafe, that’s not sustainable.”

That mission would rule out Calyxia partnering with producers of certain notorious weed killers which have — for example — been linked to cancers in humans and mass deaths of bees, among other reported harms. (When asked a direct question, Walters confirms there is “no, not a chance” of it working with the maker of glyphosate.)

Instead of using plastic (non-biodegradable) microcapsules — to add “value” to products at the expense of the environment — the promise is that Calyxia’s chosen partners will be using its biodegradable microcapsule technology to shrink how much plastic pollution their products generate, while still being able to tout long-lasting “fresh” scents (in the case of laundry liquid makers) or sustained crop protection that won’t just wash away after a rain shower.

While you might think those particular use-cases for microcapsules might be better eliminated altogether, Walters argues that the use of the technology for crop protection is helpful to reducing the amount of pesticide which needs to be used — meaning there may be wider environmental benefits to continued use.

Not so much for fragranced laundry liquids, though. Added “perfumes” have no hidden benefits beyond being smelly — at best you could argue their use might help encourage people to wash their clothes less frequently. But it’s a pretty big stretch to justify the use of extra chemicals that are also linked to allergies and other human health problems.

The reason for continued use there is largely economic. Laundry liquid makers want to shift more product — and think they will if washed clothes “smell nice”.

At the same time, though, continued use of smelly laundry liquids and sustained crop protection are just two of the use cases that result in microplastics being released into the environment. The problem is far bigger than either of those use cases, which we could at least envisage stopping altogether and replacing with less harmful interventions.

After all, some industrial processes that have involved intentionally incorporating tiny plastic fragments into products have been banned already — such as the use of plastic micro beads as an exfoliant in cosmetics. And the European Union is mulling a ban on all intentionally added microplastics. However, industry lobbying has complicated the picture — and appears to be delaying legislative action.

The wider problem is that most microplastics do not start out as crafted as micro fragments but rather get generated through wear of a larger amount of a material. Basically, friction causes tiny fragments to break off and escape — washing into waterways and oceans, ending up in soils and sediment, or collecting in the dust in our urban environments.

(Car tyres, for example, are a major source of pollutive micro-particles. And there again there are serious human health implications — think of the dust city dwellers must constantly breath in. So even though an electric vehicle could have zero exhaust emissions it may still be littering our urban living spaces with fragments of rubber that degrade our health.)

This is why Calyxia’s business looks a lot more interesting — and scalable — than it might seem at first glance if you focus on the eco-scented laundry liquid angle: Because the startup has devised a version of its microcapsule technology that can be added to other materials — plastics, coatings, foams etc. — to make them more wear-resistant and therefore limit how much microplastics their use creates. 

Reducing the generation of microplastics over time by allowing the materials to perform better under friction could have wider benefits too — longer-lasting, harder-wearing components, say, as well as better environmental credentials. 

“Primary microplastics that people add to have a benefit represent less than 17% of microplastics. The other 83% comes from the deterioration of plastics and rubbers in our lives,” explains Walters. “The same with coatings, road-markings, the same with paint. So what we do is we have an ingredient that you add to plastics, or paint, or packaging, or coatings, and then when there’s any abrasion it causes the capsules to open, deliver a lubricant at the surface preventing wear.

“Our one ingredient added in a small percentage can increase the lifespan of materials by 10x. Can increase the wear resistance by 10x. And can reduce microplastic generation by over 10x.”

With this more broadly applicable technology, Walters says the startup will be producing a new portfolio of plastic products — “coatings, composites, foams, plastics in automotive applications, in sporting goods, in consumer goods; wherever there’s a material that undergoes wear”.

The potential for such a substance — assuming it performs as billed — to limit unintentionally released microplastics looks huge.

And that’s good news because the challenge of plastic pollution is certainly a planet-wrapping one.

Walters says this broader microcapsule technology — which it’s calling Caly-Shield — will be released this year. (For laundry fragrance its product will be marketed as “enviro-caps”. While for agricultural use cases its active ingredient delivery capsules will be called “natura-caps”.)

“By making [materials] more wear resistant you have a 10x longer lifespan so you can replace them fewer times — which also [means] a massive environmental footprint reduction. And you can replace them before the microplastics are generated,” he adds on the Caly-Shield tech.

“People talk about this topic less because people are more familiar with agriculture and fragrances but this is really one of the biggest causes of microplastics in the world today. And our technology here will transform the material world in this area.”

While biodegradable microplastics certainly sound a lot better than the current fragments — which have a habit of hanging around for centuries — it’s fair to say that biodegradable plastics don’t always have the greatest reputation.

Biodegradable plastic bags, for example, have been shown to break down into lots of little pieces of plastic — creating, yep, more microplastics! — which may then take a very long time to rot away, thereby meaning plastic pollution lingers in the environment as an ecotoxin, posing all the aforementioned risks to animal and human life…

Asked how Calyxia is able to guarantee that its “biodegradable” microcapsules do, in fact, disintegrate rapidly and don’t hang around long enough to interfere with the environment, Walters says the company is using a new process to manufacture microcapsules which allows for the use of many different materials as an alternative to using microplastic.

He also notes it has put its tech through independent testing, which he says has demonstrated that its biodegradable capsules do really do the job of disappearing quickly.

“All microcapsules produced in the world today are produced by one process. They produce polyurethane or polymelamine formaldehyde capsules… We have invented a new process that’s environmentally sustainable — so energy efficient, water efficient, we’ll be zero carbon or carbon neutral next year. So our process is more sustainable but more than that our process is compatible with thousands of different shell materials,” he says.

“I can’t tell you the specific material we use for the capsules themselves because our competitors are very big chemical companies and they’re very aggressive, but what I can tell you is that we have [an independent testing company] regularly analyzing our capsules [to determine if performance meets the standard of the OECD 301 biodegradability test].”

“Ultimately the capsules have been demonstrated to be fully biodegradable,” he adds, saying that for the home-care microcapsules the test involves verifying that microbes in waste water treatment facilities fully consume the capsules so that no plastics end up in the ocean. For agriculture a soil test is performed — with the capsules placed in soil and an assessment of the biodegradation rate carried out as soil microbes consume the capsules.

“We’ve confirmed in soil tests by an independent testing laboratory and in waste water plant by an independent testing laboratory that they’re biodegradable and that they’re fully consumed into CO2 and oxygen,” Walters adds.

Some of the NGOs campaigning for EU regulations to ban microplastics have raised concerns that industry lobbying will create loopholes for manufacturers to continue using damaging plastics — either in even smaller forms (so called nanoplastics) or by widening the definition of biodegradable, as well as these vested interests continuing to push to delay regulations banning use.

We also asked Walters about this and he confirmed Calyxia’s capsules are not nanoplastics (nor are they classed as microplastics), reiterating: “They are biodegradable, and leave no trace in the environment.”

“I agree with the NGO opposition to the long transitional periods. Lobbyists are trying to extend the transition period. For me, the regulation should be enforced now, as there are available biodegradable solutions,” he also told us. “I also agree with NGO opposition on the very broad definition of biodegradability. Lobbyists are trying the broaden the original proposition of the European Commission. This is a problem.

“The original proposition was a test called the OECD 301 B. This is a very strict test for biodegradability that many company’s products do not pass today. Calyxia capsules do pass this strict test.”

“The European Commission should reduce the transition period, and not extend the definition of biodegradability,” he urged.

While Calyxia’s technology sounds like it could be great news for stemming the flow of new microplastics into our environment, it obviously cannot do anything to clean up existing microplastic pollution.

On that Walters says other innovations will be needed — to the extent that removing so many tiny fragments is humanly possible. It may be that we are saddled with this toxic legacy for hundreds — or even a thousand years.

At the same time, scientists have been working on developing enzymes that can consume plastic — and last year a so-called “super enzyme” was reported to have been engineered that was able to consume plastic 6x faster than previous bioengineering efforts. So it’s certainly interesting to speculate whether an environmentally friendly microcapsule technology which enables delayed release of active substances might be an interesting delivery system for plastic-eating enzymes — to essentially bake in a rapid self-destruct mechanism to products made of plastic so they can’t end up as pollution.

Certainly we need to get a whole lot smarter about the materials we make — considering the entire lifecycle of products and what happens at their end-of-life, rather than just pumping out more shiny new stuff without a care for tomorrow.

However, the inevitably higher upfront cost for product manufacturers of eco interventions like Calyxia’s means regulators have a key role to play in setting conditions where environmental considerations must be baked into product development by default. Really moving the needle on microplastics means it can’t just be left up to a few “leading” brands to shell out for the chance to market their “green” solution as a product differentiator.

“You’re not seeing people dying from microplastic pollution today and we’re not seeing animals becoming extinct and the food chain becoming extinct. But… if we leave this problem unsolved, then within a decade or two, particularly with the rising population and the growing consumerism, it could reach a level where we can’t correct it,” says Walters. “We can’t remove microplastics from the ocean. We can remove bulk plastics but we can’t remove microplastics. So if it reaches a catastrophically high level of pollutants it’s too late… We need to act now before it’s too late.”

“With Calyxia’s solution you could eliminate microplastics in agriculture and laundry products and you could start to introduce it into materials across the world. But it will take time to implement everywhere,” he adds. “What we really need is we need regulators in the U.S. and Asia to follow the European lead. And to start putting limits on microplastic generated from materials — and start banning microplastics on products in the U.S. and Asia too.

“If we can do that global manufacturers across the world will have no other solution but to change their practices — and either with Calyxia’s technology or another technology they’ll find solutions.”