Four biotechnology graduate students at San José State University recently discovered a concerning problem: In the research labs where they were interns, the majority of single-use plastics were not being recycled because of contamination.
So those students — Sushmita Sen,’22 MS Biotechnology; Paul Mack, ’22 MS Biotechnology; Tvisha Josyula, ’22 MS Biotechnology; and Vishaka Shah, ’22 MS Biotechnology — came up with a solution: Environzyme Biosciences, a business idea that earned them the top prize of $1,500 at SJSU’s 18th annual Silicon Valley Innovation Challenge (SVIC). They also received the People’s Choice Award at the competition, bringing their total winnings to $2,000.
The annual event, held this year on Nov. 30–Dec. 1, is presented by the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business. It allowed both graduate and undergraduate SJSU students and students from a secondary school and other collegiate institutions to pitch business ideas to entrepreneurs and investors, while also giving them the chance to network.
This year, out of the 42 student-team finalists who presented their ideas, eight took home awards.
When problems lead to innovation
All four of the Environzyme Biosciences team are also enrolled in SJSU’s Stem Cell Internships in Laboratory-based Learning program, and each of them intern at various partner academic or corporate research labs.
They learned that in 2018, approximately 30,000 tons of biopharma single-use plastic ended up in landfills or incinerators, and that number is expected to grow, shared Sen during one of Environzyme Biosciences’s pitches to the SVIC judges.
Plastics used in biopharmaceutical and biotechnology labs are often contaminated, and it’s not easy — nor cheap — to decontaminate these materials to recycle them. What’s more, lab plastics typically contain polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which, when incinerated, emits toxic dioxins, posing a major threat to public health and the environment, added Josyula.
Environzyme Biosciences would collect PET waste from biotech companies and “use plastic-degrading enzymes to convert PET to its more useful byproduct: purified terephthalic acid or PTA,” said Shah.
They would then sell PTA to industries that could reuse it, such as the automobile industry, she added.
Sarika Pruthi, associate professor in the Lucas College’s School of Global Innovation and Leadership, who coordinates the event each year, is always impressed by the time and talent demonstrated by the competition’s participants and those who volunteer to make it happen.
“What is most exciting, perhaps, is the opportunity to engage with students from all over campus and beyond,” Pruthi shared. “The energy and imagination of our students — and the unwavering commitment and dedication of our judges, faculty and non-faculty mentors at SJSU and outside the university — does not cease to amaze me year after year.”
Dan Moshavi, dean of the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business, said that while the college organizes the event, “it’s truly a partnership with the whole university.”
“In my five years here, we’ve had winning student teams from every college on campus, demonstrating that innovation and creative ideas flow from all of our academic disciplines,” he said.
The Environzyme Biosciences team hope to use their winnings to build “a more comprehensive and viable business plan and seek expert guidance from people who are familiar with the U.S. recycling infrastructure and the PET and PTA market trends,” Mack said.
“Entering the SVIC along with such innovative and intelligent minds has been a humbling experience, and has only motivated us to expand our horizons and make us a stronger team,” Josyula shared on behalf of the entire Environzyme Biosciences team. “We are forever grateful for this opportunity and hope to propel a community of excellence in recycling and sustainability.”