A plastic waste transforming company wins in new Research Based Business category of Intervarsity 2023

Published On: 15 February 2024|

“The plastic pollution crisis is here. But luckily, we have the ultimate solution: Bioplastics: plant-based and biodegradable alternatives to regular plastics. WRONG!”

Ms Dominique Rocher, 1st year Crop Science and Microbiology PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University was emphatic in her denouncement of bioplastics when she addressed judges at the 5th EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity finals, on 30 November 2023.

The event was hosted by Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme that is sponsored by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Her unique and planet saving company, Urobo Biotech – which uses waste transforming enzymatic and microbial processes and was co-founded with final-year PhD candidate, Wessel Myburgh. This solution secured them a win in the new Research Based Business category, and a R20 000 prize. At the time of the Intervarsity finals, Myburgh was looking for investors at COP28 in Dubai.

Theirs was among 20 research-based business entries – drawn from 1226 overall entries from 25 of South Africa’s 26 universities. Contestants in the research-based business category were reduced to just six finalists.

Co-winner in the Research-based Business category, Ms Dominique Rocher (middle) from Stellenbosch University, flanked by Ms Itumeleng Dhlamini (left), Social Innovation Specialist at SA Breweries, and Mr Sandile Shabalala, EDHE’s Senior Student Engagement Officer.

Possible answer to waste management

These Stellies might have the answer for waste management companies around the globe who battle with problems caused by the rise in bioplastic waste – which currently mostly ends up in landfills or at incinerator plants. They want to take problematic waste and transform it into a high value commodity.

Ms Rocher told the audience: “Without proper management of bioplastics waste, the plastics pollution crisis will continue to intensify – to the complete destruction of Earth.”

For clarity

What exactly are bioplastics, and what problem do they cause in the world?

The two PhD candidates define bioplastics as any plastic that is either biobased (produced using renewable biomass sources), biodegradable (breaks down under certain defined environmental or industrial conditions) or has both of these properties. They are family of materials with a wide range of properties and applications, mostly used in the packaging industry, mostly single-use plastic items.

Despite serious concerns about their end-of-life options, their applications are expanding into more diverse industries, causing further alarm.

Organic waste

Said Rocher: “At Urobo Biotech our customers’ problems include organic waste that causes processing problems and that result in the cost of removal and disposal. Similarly established recyclers sit with the problem where only 0.1% of contamination with bioplastics completely disrupts their facility.”

Bioplastics producers, she said, are looking for cheaper building blocks to produce more and more of these bioplastics. “Our vision at Urobo Biotech is to take this low-value problematic waste and transform it into a high value commodity. Our value proposition is to help these waste management companies to valorise their bioplastic waste using our enzymatic and microbial processes to produce fuels and chemicals, thereby enabling a fully circular economy and addressing various SDGs.

“Urobo’s technology development is currently at a technology readiness level 4, and we are entering into our regional filings of our PCT (patent) applications early in 2024,” Rocher further explained. “We aim to reach a technology readiness level 6 by 2025.”

A growing market

The microbiologist said the market is growing exponentially. Together with a group in Japan it is established that Urobo Biotech may reach a targeted SOM (Service Obtainable Market) of $335million.

“Our route to market is based on a product and after sales service models with us having upfront revenues from process package designs, with recurring revenues from enzyme sales and consulting services.

“Our project plan includes piloting our technology in 2025 with our industrial partner, Etra, in Italy, followed by industrial scale process design with our international partner BTS in 2026.”

Funding

She said funding would be used to accelerate early traction to a technology readiness level 6 over 24 months.

The global team consists of her, co-founder Wessel Myburgh as well as two university professors from Stellenbosch and Padua, Italy.

“We have a base in South Africa as well as in Italy and Japan. We also have various partnerships and awards, after only five months since we were established,” she said.

On how much funding Urobo needs, Dominique said: “We have a five-year budget of between $300 000 or $500 000 — depending on whether you want the Rolls Royce or Volkswagen version. We already have funding from Italy and American organisation Founder.org, that invests in student entrepreneurs.”

In her acceptance speech, Rocher thanked the EDHE organising committee. She told the finalists: “We’re all winners. How many people applied, and we are the 24 who made it here. I hope that each one of us, finalists, go back to our universities and disseminate this spirit we have for entrepreneurship and infect it into our peers so that next year, more people – maybe double the number – will apply.”

She gave a shout out to her co-founder partner, Wessel, who she said infected her with the entrepreneurial spirit.

QnA with Judges

Judge Martin Matshego (Head: Investment Readiness): How have you raised R&D funding so far?

Response: We are in the incubator at Stellenbosch University and the University of Padua in Italy, so we have had the generous support of universities which comes with the support of students – like me, a PhD student. They take care of the Intellectual Property for the initial part of establishing ourselves as a spinoff.

Furthermore, we have pre-seed grant money that we received from Founder.org in America. We are also at COP28 talking to investors and we have a lot of attention from angel investors as well as from the Japanese market.

Today I received an email notifying me that Urobo Biotech has been selected for the Industry Technology Swiss African programme.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.