Experts say that for a startup to be successful, it first needs to identify an unmet market need and develop a unique solution with a compelling value proposition. And that is exactly what Bridgeworks Enterprise Center client Zzyzx Polymers has been doing for the past year.
An estimated 32 million tons of plastics are discarded each year in the U.S. alone, and less than 10% are recycled. Zzyzx (pronounced “ziz-iks”) identified that as an unmet need and developed a process that will increase those recycle rates by taking challenging waste streams, such as plastic films and mixed plastics that cannot be recycled today, and making recycled plastic pellets for its customers to use in creating molded products that reuse the recycled plastic. This will reduce plastic waste going into landfills and incinerators, and also save energy and natural resources.
But Zzyzx’s story didn’t start with that ideal picture. CEO Mike Janse, a business executive and engineer who gained experience with advanced materials startups while working in the venture capital industry, explains that the reality of a startup includes many steps and a lot of work before commercial launch.
Their founding team started with a promising but unproven technology created at Northwestern University. From there they formed a company, licensed the technology, identified a manufacturing location, demonstrated the technology, obtained significant funding from the National Science Foundation to fund pre-commercial development, built the team, and now are completing process development and scale-up.
Mark Tapsak, the company’s Chief Science Officer, is a recycling industry expert with a doctorate in polymer science from the University of South Carolina. He has authored 50 issued patents, and has extensive corporate, consulting, and academic experience as Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Bloomsburg University.
Tapsak explained that there are two key aspects of Zzyzx’s technology that comprise its unique solution. “First, our process can deal with mixed or contaminated plastics whereas other processes require pure and clean single plastic materials. It is too costly and labor intensive to separate and clean plastics, and many can’t be feasibly separated. Second, our process can improve the final recycled plastic properties by using additives that enhance performance properties of the resulting recycled material.” Examples include stiffening with cellulose from recycled cardboard, and stabilization from oxidation with the addition of grape seeds. Zzyzx has demonstrated its ability to process mixed materials by recycling the plastic cup, coffee grounds, and foil of single-use coffee pods altogether.
One trend in plastics is the increased use of multi-laminate films that layer different types of plastics and other materials like aluminum film together. Food brands can save packaging and shipping cost using these materials for packaging applications like soup packages, but have been hesitant because they would be moving from recyclable materials like metal cans, to plastics that can’t be recycled. Zzyzx’s process solution could turn that packaging approach into a “green” solution.
Zzyzx was thrilled to find Bridgeworks and to be accepted into the incubator program. “We searched far and wide for an industrial space that would accommodate a startup,” said Janse. “We could find 50,000 sq. ft. facilities that were too big and we couldn’t afford, and 2,000 sq. ft. facilities that had only office environments. But Bridgeworks provides industrial facilities under 5,000 sq. ft. with the services we needed as a start-up.”
When asked about the company’s unusual name, Janse explained that the founders had come up with several names, but all were taken. Recognizing they would no doubt be changing the company’s name in the future anyway, they selected an obscure road name. Zzyzx Road runs along the Mojave National Preserve in California and is familiar only to people who drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas and have seen the road’s exit sign. And indeed, the name Zzyzx was available.