Yelena Kann – Founder & CEO, Radical Plastics
Q: What does Radical Plastics do?
Radical Plastics has a radical solution for plastic pollution in the environment. We’re using radical chemistry to address the toughest polymers which are known to accumulate in the environment. We are depolymerizing them into biologically recyclable material. We are taking long chains polymers and converting them into something which biologically could be fed to natural microorganisms and biologically converted to their byproducts.
Q: What does that mean for me as a consumer?
This will help us to fight plastic pollution in the environment so we can still enjoy the benefits of plastics. We can support our lifestyles and all the benefits, but at the end of the day we are addressing the end-of-life plastic options which are not solved today.
Q: How are you able to do this?
We’re adding the catalyst, which is the natural mineral-based product, into the plastic. We’re redesigning plastic now to address its end of life later. The plastic will still serve its purpose, and then when it’s no longer needed as plastic, it has two or three options. It could be collected, recycled physically or chemically, or it could be recycled biologically.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Radical Plastics?
Everybody was talking about environmental pollution around 2016-2017, everybody was trying to provide ideas on how to address plastic pollution. I felt that I should not stay away because I was trained to be really focused on polymer degradation stabilization. My mind was always looking for solutions even when I was working for other companies doing totally different things.
We had been working on biodegradable plastics at Metabolix but failed. We learned a lot from this failure and my brain, I guess, was actively processing this information, thinking what else could be done. I started experimenting in my garage, I was looking at different publications and something called my attention from the agricultural world. They published the composition of a certain mineral and I said, ‘this is really interesting to add into plastic.’ I got in touch with those people, got the sample of the mineral started blending it and testing it in my free time.
I just think we make a difference. I keep scanning all other options and new technologies and there’s a lot of cool stuff, but I think that we we’re still unique. I think we still have a place here and a role to play.
Q: How has your past experience in the plastics industry helped you here?
We had been working on this problem with Metabolics for 10 plus years. We learned so many things which newcomers are just about to learn. They’re going to learn the same things we have already learned, so I’m a little bit ahead of them.
Q: What have you already learned that others have not?
We had been making polyhydroxyalkanoates at Metabolix. It’s a biobased biodegradable polyester. It’s a very interesting polymer but it has limitations which people don’t understand until they go deep into it. It’s funny to watch; people going in the same direction and then just coming back. There is such optimism and then it gets hard once they have realized ‘yeah there are problems.’
Q: Tell me a little bit about your background:
I was born in Ukraine. Then I graduated high school and got accepted to the University of Moscow. I graduated that university and came to the US. I was working in the industry for 10 years when I was introduced to Professor Norman Billingham at University of Sussex. He’s my role model in the scientific world. He was a lifelong editor of polymer degradation, and I was very interested in the subject that he has been very deeply studying.
Polymers, when they degrade, emit light and you can have very sensitive photodetectors to measure the amount of light which come out of the polymer to tell how stable it is. The company who was making this instrument has introduced me to Norman and he started publishing papers and he then invited me to do more research. That was my unforgettable time in the UK, which made me who I am as a scientist. I’m very proud of being connected to Norman, who is my lifelong friend. He is still helping me. Any time I have doubts I call him and he tells me where I’m not seeing it right.
Q: What do you like most about being a founder?
The ability to contribute. You know what you’re good at and you can focus to give your maximum contribution to that area, which is not only to your interest, but it’s important for the world.
Q: Do you prefer hamburgers or hotdogs?
I love them both.
Q: The Himalayas?!?!
I have climbed almost all the tall mountains in the world, I have done about 20 years of mountaineering. I have been all over the world from Alaska, to the Himalayas, to the Andes, to the Alps.
Q: What did you love about mountaineering?
Mountaineering is all this preparation for your climb, getting to your physical routine, your mental routine. It’s a lot of mental stuff. You have to really think how you’re going to anchor yourself; how you’re going to anchor your team; who’s going to lead? Who is supporting your climb? It’s a group thing. Some people climb solo, of course, but that’s not my thing. This is an enjoyable group activity and you have to prepare. It’s a very serious activity. It could be very fun. It could be very dangerous.