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Wharton Startup Tackles Plastic Pollution

BioCellection Co-Founders Miranda Wang (left) and Jeanny Yao pictured in 2012 with their award-winning soil bacteria. BioCellection was the first undergraduate team to win Wharton's Business Plan Competition last week. Photo by Ian Lindsay

BioCellection Co-Founders Miranda Wang (left) and Jeanny Yao pictured in 2012 with their award-winning soil bacteria. BioCellection was the first undergraduate team to win Wharton’s Business Plan Competition last week. Photo by Ian Lindsay

For nearly two decades, about 400 students at the University of Pennsylvania have formed around 150 teams to vie in the Wharton Business Plan Competition. In each of those years, the winning team has had at least one graduate student as a co-founder.

Until now.

For the first time since the competition’s inception in 1998, a team of undergraduate entrepreneurs–hardly old enough to buy their own alcohol–have won one of the world’s most prestigious new business plan competitions at a B-school.

Historically speaking, undergraduate teams at the university aren’t supposed to win — particularly not students who aren’t part of one of the world’s largest and most acclaimed B-schools in the world  Yet that’s exactly what Miranda Wang, 22, and Jeanny Yao, 21, the founders of the environmentally-focused BioCellection, did last Thursday (April 28). In the 18th version of the competition, which has produced the likes of Warby Parker, Baby.com.br, RightCare Solutions, and many others, the Canadian duo of young scientists collected the $30,000 Perlman Grand Prize by beating out first runner-up, mentoring organization, BrEDcrumb and second runner-up personal training app, WeTrain.

In addition to being the youngest team to ever win the competition, Wang and Yao also set the record for most categorical wins. The Vancouver, British Columbia natives won the Wharton Social Impact Award, the Gloeckner Undergraduate Award, the Michelson People’s Choice Award and the Committee Award for Most ‘Wow Factor.’ In the process, they scooped up a total of $54,000 in prize cash. To be sure, the two young scientists are no strangers to winning competitions at the University of Pennsylvania. All told, Wang says the team has won 22 competitions, netting more than $90,000 in investments during her four-year undergraduate career.

AN ARGUMENT AGAINST THE ZUCKERBERG-STYLE OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP

“There is a lot of voice about why you should drop out of school and do a startup,” explains Wang on a phone call with Poets&Quants. “My example is why you should stay in school and do a startup. We got free lab space at school. I got credit towards graduation for working on this research. And we got grant money.”

No kidding. In addition to the more than $90,000 in investments, the team has leveraged connections to the tune of about $240,000 in investments. What exactly Wang and Yao are doing–and why they’ve had such success since launching BioCellection a year ago–sounds akin to an advanced chemical biology lecture. They’ve essentially invented a technology that breaks down and converts plastic pollution into either nontoxic carbon dioxide water or high-end chemicals used in luxury clothing fabrics. So, the plastic bottle you lazily through in a dumpster either turns into some weird carbon-dioxide infused water or a Louis Vuitton scarf.

After building the proprietary bacterium for the technology in University of Pennsylvania labs, Wang, a cell and molecular biology and engineering major, and Yao, a biochemistry and environmental studies major at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, have filed for two provisional patents and await two years of prototype testing to fully take the technology to market. But if all goes to plan, Wang believes BioCellection will be the first company to enter a potential $13 billion marine plastic pollution remediation industry. And they will be a strong player in the $42 billion market to replace current chemical surfactants used in luxury goods with their own engineered chemicals from plastic pollution. Their double-stream business model projects $100 million in revenue by 2020.

FRIENDS SINCE 8TH GRADE MATH

Perhaps more impressive than the science, technology and business moxie behind BioCellection is the story of how it came to be. Wang and Yao first became friends in an 8th grade math class in Vancouver. Once in high school, the two took over as co-presidents of their high school’s environment club. “Environmentalism was the biggest thing we were passionate about,” Wang recalls.

The passion for environmental science only blossomed when the duo visited the Waste Transfer Station in South Vancouver as a club field trip. What they found disturbed and haunted both of them. Garbage–mainly plastic–stretched for the length of four football fields and was piled three or four stories high. While there, truck after truck came into the transfer station and dumped plastic garbage, mattresses and construction waste, Wang remembers. “My trash was there,” admits Yao. “It was really shocking and horrifying seeing the way we treat our plastic garbage.”

And that was just a small fraction. Transfer stations serve as the first stopping point for your garbage and recycling after the truck picks it up. After being sorted and compressed at the smaller stations, waste is shipped off to be incinerated, recycled, or in most instances, dumped in a heaping landfill. “What’s shocking is what the plastic looks like at that stage,” says Wang. “It’s not these nice, geometric shapes. It’s all very contaminated and mixed in and there’s no way to separate it. It was so messed up and I thought, how have I never thought about this before?”