SOCIAL BUSINESSES

There’s plastic in your beer and gender bias in tech – PolyGone is fixing both

Melissa Embury - August 28, 2019 Lauren Smith, CEO and co-founder of PolyGone Technologies, is fighting for microplastic-free water and gender equality in tech
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Halfway between Hawaii and California floats a patch of garbage more than three times the size of France. Known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it spans 1.6 million sq. km and contains an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing about 80,000 tonnes.

Some of that detritus is quite big – nets, containers, bags and other large pieces make up the bulk by volume and weight. But there’s another kind of plastic that’s just as insidious and dangerous.

Microplastics. They’re everywhere – the ocean, the air, marine animals, pristine lakes, our food, our drinking water and, as recently discovered, in human excrement. But because they are so tiny – 5 millimetres across or smaller, they’re challenging to remove. 

PolyGone Technologies is up to the challenge, removing microplastics from laundry, drinking water and even beer. 

“The big part of the problem is not just the plastic getting into our drinking water and drinking supply, but plastics collect chemicals on their surfaces as well, which are linked to a whole host of health concerns… there’s DDT used in pesticides, types of dyes that are used in textiles,” says founder and CEO Lauren Smith.

And if that challenge wasn’t enough, Smith and co-founder Nicole Balliston have also had their fair share of personal experiences with gender bias in a male-driven industry – so much so that Smith decided to focus her Ph.D. research specifically on social and ecological sustainability and gender bias with the goal of making a positive impact on both problems.

The clothes we wear in the water we drink

 Smith didn’t know microplastics were such a large problem when she graduated in 2017 from her master’s program in sustainability management from the University of Waterloo with a specialization in water. 

Her master’s research focused on behaviour change and water management, but not microplastics. It was during the 2017 AquaHacking Challenge focused on issues in Lake Erie when she realized something needed to be done.

“One area of concentration was plastics,” she says. And the more she dug into it, the more she realized that this area didn’t seem to be very well researched. “I realized that no one was really tackling the microplastic problem.”

“I learned that very little was being done about microfibres, despite their contribution to most of the microplastic problem.”

– Lauren Smith, CEO and co-founder of PolyGone Technologies

One source of microplastics in particular surprised her: the plastics like polyester and nylon in our clothes that break down in the laundry. “After researching into this, I learned that very little was being done about microfibres, despite their contribution to most of the microplastic problem. I came up with a potential solution, and went from there,” says Smith.

That led her to the idea of making a washing machine filter that would capture those fibres before they entered the water system.  

Since that realization, she has been applying her research in behaviour change and decision making to this problem, developing her entrepreneurial skills and working hard in the lab with Balliston to create highly effective microfibre capture technology. 

“PolyGone is solving a problem that doesn’t really have anyone on it, which is interesting,” Smith says.

Setting the standard for microplastics testing

 Since then, the study of microplastics gained some momentum because we are now able to look more closely, says Smith.

“Nanotechnology is increasing. We are able to look at smaller and smaller things, so maybe that’s part of why it’s now getting attention or increasingly getting attention,” she says. “The interest on plastics, in general, is growing.”

But that doesn’t mean the problem’s solved. Last year, while the duo were improving their filter, they realized other researchers tackling the problem weren’t measuring microplastics in the same way.

“Everyone’s using different methods. People aren’t even using the same sort of definitions,” Smith says. “Some studies are publishing the effectiveness of a filter, but not even looking at the whole range of microplastics. They weren’t looking below a certain size. We see so much underneath that range and they’re just not looking at that.”

“Everyone’s using different methods. People aren’t even using the same sort of definitions.”

– Lauren Smith

They dove into the science behind health issues with microplastics, too, including The World Health Organization’s research on human effects that identifies the potential risks of plastic in drinking water after a new analysis of some of the world’s most popular bottled water brands found that more than 90 per cent contained tiny pieces of plastic. A previous study also found high levels of microplastics in tap water.

Smith and Balliston realized they needed to set the standard for microplastic measurement and let consumers know there’s still a huge awareness problem. 

So the founders reached out to breweries to see if they could work together to find a way to measure the levels. “What we’re doing now is starting with a brewery measuring the plastics and their beer and working with them to offer detection and certification,” Smith says.

As for the tech, “We have an automated platform that we’re building using a kind of 3D printer base to take pictures,” she says. They’re also working with UW Blueprint, a group of students on campus who help social enterprises and non-profits with software development. 

“What we’re trying to do is make that process something that’s faster, more reliable and more affordable.”

– Lauren Smith

“They are helping us from software development to automate counting and they can then write a code that will automatically process our images to count the number of [microplastic] specks that are there and what size they are,” she says. “The process takes a lot of time, can only analyze one piece at a time, so what we’re trying to do is make that process something that’s faster, more reliable and more affordable.”

Pitching as a female founder

 That’s only half the battle, though. It’s no secret that the tech industry is historically white, male, and unwelcoming to women

Just 2.2 per cent of all venture capital in the U.S. goes to companies founded by women. Companies with all-male founders receive funding after their first round close to 35 per cent of the time. For companies with female founders, that number is less than two per cent. It’s no wonder that only two per cent of women owned businesses ever make it to $1 million in revenue, which is 3.5 times less than their male counterparts.

There’s also growing evidence that women in STEM fields face gender bias. Stats show men dominate the STEM fields throughout industry and academia. In one study, STEM professors were less likely to hire a fictional candidate named Jennifer for a lab manager position than one named John, even though the applications were identical. They also offered “John” more money.

Just 2.2 per cent of all venture capital in the U.S. goes to companies founded by women.

– Pitchbook.com

So when Smith had to pitch, she knew she was running uphill leading a STEM-based tech company founded by two women. 

Take a phone call about a potential partnership, for instance. “I was describing my company and what we do, and the person who worked in the same field as me asked, ‘are there any scientists that work on your team?’” she says. “I’m a scientist. My cofounder is a scientist. Yep. He kept on questioning that.” 

It happened on the other side of the table, as a judge at a pitch competition where she was the only female on the panel. “Let’s see who these presenters are pitching to,” she thought, “and almost every one of them only looked at the male judges. There was one presenter out of six to ten teams who did make eye contact with me… which was very frustrating.”

She found support through the Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco last year. These summits have been going on for six years, with the goal to get more queer women and underrepresented groups into tech, amplify their voices and create a community.

“Almost every one of them only looked at the male judges. There was one presenter out of six to ten teams who did make eye contact with me.”

– Lauren Smith

PolyGone is also a graduate of Communitech’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp. The fast-paced business and personal growth program is open to entrepreneurs with a tech or tech-based company who have either successfully launched their MVP or are close to doing so. 

“They really helped you with your pitch the whole way through. There’s six days total of boot camp and they cover different topics every day from IP to sales to marketing, target audience – all the basics of starting a business. There was really good advice,” Smith says. She received $25,000 in second place at the finale after pitching to a panel of judges. 

It helped her hone her skills on how to raise money and pitch to investors as well as how to set boundaries between work and personal life, too – an important lesson since her business partner is also her life partner.

“Figuring out how to set boundaries between work and personal life has been a struggle, but it’s great to be able to discuss developments and ideas as they come up. Nicole’s managing lab space science and I’m pitching, handling money, accounting and finance,” Smith says. “It works.” 

Polygone’s future plans for innovation

So what’s next for Smith and Balliston? Down the road, they would like to make a smaller version of the technology that a brewery could use in their own lab.

They’ve filed their provisional patents and are working on international ones next. “Figuring out the details of what the certification system will look like. So having that in a beautiful package, working with the certification board, whether that’s the Craft Brewers Association or creating a Canada wide certification process,” Smith says.

But ultimately, PolyGone wants to make sure our water is safe to drink.

DRAFT CARD

  • Name: PolyGone Technologies
  • Solution: Reliable, fast and affordable microplastic detection and content certification for beverages (and beyond!)
  • Owners: Lauren Smith and Nicole Balliston
  • Employees: 4
  • Headquarters: Waterloo, Ont.
  • Founded: 2018
  • Initial investment: $100,000
  • Revenue: <$100,000/year
  • Contact: www.polygonetechnologies.com or [email protected]
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