Transforming Waste Fibrous Sources Into Green Energy & Products
Using a patented process, Avatar Sustainable Technologies produces fermentable cellulosic sugars from refuse of local industries. After completing NEXUS-NY Cohort 1, this clean energy startup based in Syracuse, NY is on its way to commercializing the process, partnering with a variety of companies.
Description: Avatar Sustainable Technologies takes papermill waste and processes it into fermentable sugars that can be converted to environmental friendly commercial products, including several biofuels and bioplastics applications.
The commercial potential of Avatar is to use the waste fiber rejects from paper mills to make bioproducts, improve the sustainability of the paper industry and offset the use of petroleum based products. This process will not only provide greener, degradable and economical alternatives, but also sustainable solutions by using a resource that is currently being landfilled.
Avatar has scaled this process from bench scale to pre-pilot scale, and the startup is currently working with several biochemical companies.
“We’ve already connected with a bunch of companies who have agreed to work with us on the process,” said Bhavin Bhayani, Co-founder of Avatar Sustainable Technologies. “This includes two Fortune 500 companies and leading companies in the paper and biotech industries.”
Location: Center of Excellence – Syracuse, NY
Achievements: In June 2015, Avatar received a competitive NSF SBIR grant from the National Science Foundation for $149,700. The funding was primarily used to research breaking down waste rejects from recycled containerboard mills. The results were successful, providing optimal process operational windows for yields, purity and downstream bioconversion efficacy. Avatar was also able to take the process from bench scale to pre-pilot scale.
“It’s not just the Avatar technology, it’s about the business model because we are connecting the paper companies with the biochemical companies,” explained Bhayani.
Founding Team: Bhavin Bhayani (Co-founder); Dr. Bandaru Ramarao (Co-founder). Avatar Sustainable Technologies also works with several PhD and Master students from Syracuse, NY who assist with wet work in the lab to complete optimizations.
“This particular area is quite competitive. After completing my PhD I received a couple big job offers,” explained Bhayani. I could have easily taken a job and stopped working on this venture, but my wife and family encouraged me to keep going. They reminded me of my passion for the research and helped keep my spirits up throughout this entrepreneurial journey.”
NEXUS-NY Research: Over the course of the 10-month NEXUS-NY seed accelerator, the Avatar team was charged with speaking to 50 customers as part of their discovery process. By Demo Day in NYC, Bhayani and Ramarao had created a network of over 150 people.
“NEXUS-NY taught me a lot. The program pushed me to go out and speak with people. So for me, it wasn’t about the funding, it was about getting out there, and without NEXUS I don’t think we would have made it this far,” said Bhayani. “I remember Demo Day in NYC. Doug (Buerkle, NEXUS-NY Founding Executive Director) joked with me about bail money because I would wait outside companies I was interested in. When someone stepped outside I would run up and ask them questions,” he laughed. “Perhaps I should have been in public speaking instead of a PhD.”
Next Steps: After completing a successful Phase 1 of the NSF SBIR, Avatar has applied for an additional grant with the National Science Foundation. The money from Phase 2 will go towards scaling their process to produce higher quantities and get more results out of it. To best compete and commercialize their product, Avatar needs to move away from small bench scale in the lab and automate their process. Bhayani hopes to hear back from NSF this summer.
Bhayani is also in the running for the prestigious Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Award. Developed in partnership with the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, the award spotlights innovative, yet practical solutions created by young people that help make sustainable living commonplace. Out of nearly 950 applicants, Bhayani has made it to the finals. Six people will soon be selected as winners, receiving approximately $300,000 in financial support and mentoring.
“Again, it’s not about the money, it’s about being recognized by Unilever, which could open up partnerships around the world already making packaging and other applications,” said Bhanyani. “That would be ideal!”
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