After our Randall Family Big Idea Competition Virtual Awards Ceremony, we at the Big Idea Center caught up with the grand prize winning team, Polycarbin, to discuss how three medical school students became entrepreneurs and what their next steps are to bring to life their idea to reduce the amount of biomedical waste that ends up in landfills or incinerated.
As you were studying to be doctors, when did you realize you also wanted to be entrepreneurs?
As training physician scientists with 20 years of combined laboratory research experience, we have learned that important discoveries are often born of simple questions. Last summer, the three of us were discussing our respective research projects and the topic of biomedical plastic waste came up--”what happens to all our plastic waste?” After an appraisal of our own laboratory waste streams and additional market research, we were shocked by the extent to which the scientific community is dependent on single-use plastics. Our curiosity evolved into a moral imperative as we discovered the environmental and public health consequences of the biomedical plastic lifecycle.
We did not set out to be entrepreneurs, rather, we came to medical school and pursued science to analyze, understand and solve problems. The biomedical plastic crisis happens to be an enormous problem, that affects countless Americans as well as the global population, and we think we have a solution.
How did your team come up with your big idea?
At first, we wanted to devise a way to recycle biomedical plastics to create a more sustainable research environment at Pitt. We quickly realized the enormity of the problem required a scalable solution. Our team came to the conclusion that the only way to fix the biomedical plastic crisis was to show the scientific community and the industrial producers of these products that it wasn’t just more environmentally responsible to recycle these materials, but more financially responsible as well.
The biomedical work environment is uniquely suited for the implementation of a scalable recycling solution for three important reasons: 1. As much as 70% of waste can be plastic. 2. State and federal law mandates that this waste be sterilized (cleaned) prior to disposal. 3. As a clear, colorless regrind, the recycled plastic is more versatile and is therefore more valuable. These features (plastic quantity and quality) addresses many of the problems that have historically limited successful recycling business models.
Polycarbin’s goal is to reshape waste management infrastructure in the health sciences with our diversion platform. We are a software-enabled sustainability company that will give the scientific community the first real opportunity to recycle biomedical plastics and reduce the carbon footprint of innovation. Using a diversion platform informed by waste analytics, Polycarbin is making recycling both habitual and profitable.
How did your team start to get involved with the Big Idea Center and the Randall Family Big Idea Competition?
During June of 2019, this venture led us to immerse ourselves in the larger Pittsburgh entrepreneurial community. Naturally, all roads led back to the Big Idea Center and Babs Carryer. Our first meeting ended with copies of her book “Startup Shorts” and encouragement to participate in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition in the Spring. It became clear to our team that this competition would be a great opportunity to more completely outline our business case.
What value did you get out of participating in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition (RFBIC)? What are your key learnings from the experience?
During the programming for the Randall Family Big Idea Competition (RFBIC), we found that our team benefited from having unbelievable access to the Pittsburgh entrepreneurial community. The Big Idea Center did a great job finding passionate and experienced entrepreneurs to help mentor each team. Polycarbin benefited from both the longitudinal support from our direct mentors as well as from the feedback provided by judges during each round of pitching. Our favorite part of the entire competition was the practice pitch rounds. Each time, we had the opportunity to hone the narrative arc of our story.
In sum, the RFBIC was an excellent opportunity to pressure test our idea and practice our public speaking while refining the communication skills that will help our company grow in the future. One of the most important lessons we took from the RFBIC was how to condense a business model into a 1 minute elevator pitch and a 7 minute presentation. Influenced by our research background, we initially struggled to triage information--instinctively wanting to share all the environmental data with anyone who would listen. Conversations with mentors like Babs Carryer and Don Morrison helped us to tailor each pitch to our audience based on their interests and level of expertise. This is an invaluable skill that we will apply throughout our careers.
What are the next steps for your team and how will the winnings be applied?
Our team will be taking a leave of absence from medical school in order to pursue Polycarbin full-time. With our $25k cash prize, we will finish developing the minimum viable product of our waste analytics platform. This product will be crucial for demonstrating the scalability of our business model as it will allow us to remotely monitor and maintain the value of our plastic streams. Our software will be deployed in the fall during a paid pilot study with one of our corporate partners. Our goal is to demonstrate that, at scale, Polycarbin can segregate highly valuable biomedical plastic from the regulated medical waste (RMW) stream and turn it back into laboratory products.
We want to thank everyone at the Big Idea Center and Innovation Institute who helped make this happen. Despite extraordinary circumstances, the leadership at the Big Idea Center ensured that all the hardworking finalist teams still had the opportunity to present. The decision to move the competition online is nothing short of what we would have expected from the incredibly innovative University of Pittsburgh entrepreneurial community. While we would have preferred to be with everyone in person for the awards ceremony, we were all impressed by the production quality of the livestream and still enjoyed each other’s company remotely.
Once again, the Polycarbin team is grateful to the University for this incredible opportunity to grow as entrepreneurs. We would encourage anyone who is excited by the idea of building something great and the opportunity to develop their communication skills to participate in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition!
For Pitt students with an innovation derived from sponsored Pitt research, or students who are unaffiliated with a Pitt lab but would like to explore the commercial translation of a Pitt research discovery, the application deadline to apply for the Pitt Ventures Student Challenge is May 15, 2020.