U of M startup to manufacture biodegradable shopping bags

Four students from the University of Arkansas have launched a startup company around technology developed by U of M biochemist Simo Sarkanen, Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, that would manufacture biodegradable plastic shopping bags. The founders formed cycleWood Solutions Inc. after creating a business plan around the technology for an entrepreneurship class.

“The point of the class was to build a viable business,” said Nhiem Cao, president and CEO of cycleWood Solutions. He found the technology, a lignin-based biodegradable plastic, on the Office for Technology Commercialization’s website. They then completed an option agreement for the technology, and later licensed it to launch the startup.

According to Cao, one million plastic bags are used globally every minute. Some discarded bags will sit forever in landfills, some will pollute the world’s oceans and landscapes as litter and less than one percent will be recycled. Cao hopes cycleWood will be part of the solution to this problem.

“Our product will biodegrade in 150 days,” said Cao. “Instead of having a growing problem, the problem will gradually go away.”

Although details are not yet finalized, Cao anticipates the startup will provide the product at a slightly higher price point than traditional plastic bags but still be a substantial savings over biodegradable options currently available. Several corporate retailers have already indicated interest in the bags.

There are also talks of developing biodegradable bags for yard waste, and BBs for airsoft guns. But the startup’s first priority will be to get investors on board and initiate a manufacturing strategy.

cycleWood last week was named regional champion in the 2011 Cleantech Open Business Competition, and will go on to compete in the national competition in November.

Nhiem Cao has more than five years of experience working as a process engineer and wet-end superintendent in the paper industry.  Kevin Oden, COO, has two years of experience consulting for a large plastics manufacturer.

Source: The Office for Technology Commercialization at the University of Minnesotta oversees all aspects of technology commercialization at the University of Minnesota. Its mission is to translate U of research into new products and services that provide growth opportunities for licensees, benefit the public good, improve the quality of life, and generate revenue tosupport research and education goals.

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