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Breakthrough Cambridge science turns pea protein into microplastics (without the plastic)




Dr Marc Rodríguez Garcia, head of research, in the Xampla lab
Dr Marc Rodríguez Garcia, head of research, in the Xampla lab

A new plant protein material has emerged from Cambridge deep science just in time to provide global manufacturers a solution to the microplastics dilemma.

The University of Cambridge spin-out’s major scientific breakthrough involves the development of single-use plastic made from every plants, such as peas. With potential for everything from single-use bags to sachets, Xampla’s first product will be a natural ‘microcapsule’ to keep fragrance fresh inside personal and homecare products like fabric conditioner. Currently, brands have to use microcapsules made from synthetic polymers (ie traditional plastic) which get washed down the drain, pollute the environment and are set be banned by legislators as the great plastic clean-up programme looks to new solutions.

The development, which has just received £2m seed funding, was inspired by the way the spider uses protein to create its silk, says CEO Simon Hombersley.

Professor Tuomas Knowles, who is a protein scientist – one of the world’s most cited – was doing some research on the nature of proteins and started looking at spiders,” Simon said of the man who holds a personal professorship in the Department of Chemistry and at the Cavendish Laboratory and is also a Fellow of St John’s College.

“A spider eats a fly and creates a protein from that at ambient temperatures. Tuomas was curious – what’s happening is that proteins have the ability to self-assemble and to take different forms. It’s similar to the process when the boil an egg – the clear liquid turns white.

“Spider protein is very good but tricky to create so plant proteins are preferred, but plant proteins are very difficult to work with – which is why we’ve got a breakthrough.”

Xampla has managed to control the natural self-assembly of proteins – called supra-molecular engineering – by controlling the conditions, but the precise mechanism is under wraps.

“I can’t say what the exact process is,” says Simon. “Our pea process isolate is brought in and by applying our process to it we can turn it into our product. It’s entirely scaleable and analogous to food processing. We’ve got some further scale-up steps to get through but nothing is conceptually challenging. We have a good patent portfolio and more patents to come as well.”

Xampla, from left, are CEO Simon Hombersley, scientific adviser Professor Tuomas Knowles and head of research Dr Marc Rodríguez Garcia
Xampla, from left, are CEO Simon Hombersley, scientific adviser Professor Tuomas Knowles and head of research Dr Marc Rodríguez Garcia

The formula doesn’t just work with peas – the legume family – but all plant proteins. And it won’t just be applicable to Xampla’s first applications – in shampoo, laundry liquid and conditioners. But the crucial aspect of this product is that it comes in tiny capsules just like the bad-boy original, and it clings on to fabrics and releases a perfume like like the traditional product. The key thing is that, when it is released from your washing machine into the water course and eventually flows into the sea, it is edible to the microbes and sea creatures.

Unlike current alternatives to microplastics, which are based on plant polysaccharides, such as cellulose and algae, Xampla’s plant protein materials do not rely on chemical cross-linking for their performance. This enables them to decompose quickly and completely in the natural environment – and it’s all down to the protein, or at least the science part of it is. And when you scale it up the effect is massive.

“European documentation says that it would save 400,000 tonnes of plastic polluting the ocean over on the shore over 20 years,” notes Simon. “This is a genuine science breakthrough, to engineer plant proteins into useful materials, because plant protein is insoluble but digestible.”

In proposing regulations on added microplastics, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) found that each year in Europe added microplastics equivalent to 10 billion plastic bottles were released into the environment and were practically impossible to remove.

The business side of the equation also stacks up nicely. It perhaps helps that Prof Knowles, 40, is on his third start-up: he is scientific founder of Wren Therapeutics, and founder and chief scientific officer of Fluidic Analytics. The recent seed round is “just the start”, says Simon, and it helps having strong connections to Cambridge Enterprise, whose investment director Dr Elaine Loukes said: “Xampla has come up with a remarkable alternative to plastic. The fabrication process mimics those used by nature and the product is entirely made from natural materials. We are very pleased to be supporting a company with the potential for tremendous beneficial impact.”

Xampla microplastic is made from edible protein structures
Xampla microplastic is made from edible protein structures

The round was co-led by global technology investor Amadeus Capital Partners and Cambridge Enterprise, with participation from Sky media group’s impact investment fund Sky Ocean Ventures and the University of Cambridge Enterprise Fund VI, managed by Parkwalk.

Amadeus Capital Partners is the lead investor of the £2m investment announced at the end of April. Principal Amelia Armour said: “Xampla is a great example of deep tech emerging from the UK research base at exactly the right time to respond to regulatory changes and consumer trends around plastic. We’re excited to be investing alongside an impact investor, and backing a world-class science team that can offer commercial solutions for multiple industries.”

Vanessa Draper, director, Sky Ocean Ventures, added: “We have been investing in innovations to end the devastating flow of plastic into the sea for the last two years. We’re excited by Xampla’s potential to replace synthetic microplastics hidden inside everyday products from detergents to paints. Consumers often aren’t aware of these ‘hidden plastics’ and have little ability to reduce their use of them so a new sustainable materials approach is needed.”

The funding will help take the material into production – and the market is massive. The scale of the potential economic impact of the EU’s proposed restriction can be seen in data submitted by the industry to the ECHA’s stakeholder workshop. For example, Cosmetics Europe, the trade body representing the European cosmetics and personal care industry, stated that a restriction of microplastics in both rinse-off and leave-on products would affect 24,172 formulations, resulting in loss of revenue for the industry of 12.2bn euros per year.

“Our mission is to reduce the impact of single-use plastic, and our initial commercial focus is on intentionally-added microplastics,” concludes Simon. “With our new plant protein material, we are committed to helping manufacturers make the transition from traditional plastics to high performance alternatives that protect the planet.

“This is an incredible opportunity, and a very rare example of something coming out of deep science being launched at exactly the time and when the market and the regulators need something new.”



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