Project Plastic team builds winning venture during two Princeton Startup Bootcamps

Thursday, Oct 28, 2021
by Ben Burns '23

The second iteration of the Princeton Startup Bootcamp concluded over the summer, as once again teams of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers convened by Princeton Innovation gathered to build ventures under the guidance of Techstars instructors and mentors. Teams worked during the bootcamp to enhance their products and companies, and for a chance to win a $10,000 prize for the top startup. Project Plastic, conceived by Yidian Liu *21 and Nathaniel Banks *21, won first place from the experienced entrepreneurs assembled on the judges’ panel.

First developed by Liu and Banks as undergraduate architecture students at Syracuse, Project Plastic is centered around a hexagonal apparatus that can catch microplastics without impacting the ecosystem. The apparatus, called the “Plastic Hunter”, is “a modular water treatment wetland pad that utilizes organic and artificial root networks as biofilters to passively entrap microplastic debris in rivers.” The module floats on top of the water with small fibers dangling down into the water. The fibers secrete a very sticky substance called exudate, which traps the plastics. The apparatuses can easily be fit together to cover a large area.

Headshots of Nathaniel Banks and Yidian Liu

Nathaniel Banks *21 and Yidian Liu *21. (Photos via Project Plastic)

The project’s origins come from a joint thesis at Syracuse where Liu and Banks were asked to come up with a solution to aquatic plastic pollution. “We found that around 93 percent of bottled water in the U.S. contains microplastics,” Liu said. “They can build up in the human body.” She noted that the microplastics do not just come straight from water, but also from animals we eat that consume the plastics. Liu said that the goal for their modules is to deploy them in rivers. Since 80 percent of plastics enter the ocean via rivers, the Project Plastic team wants to place the product closer to the problem. 

Liu and Banks originally brought their idea to the inaugural Princeton Startup Bootcamp in January 2021. They took the advice they received during the bootcamp and refined their idea, along with filing a patent. “We had a lot of design improvements, a small lab model, and some 3-D print prototypes,” said Liu, “but it was our go-to-market strategy that was the main improvement.” They took these improvements into the second bootcamp in June, where they further refined their technology. In addition, they received new bootcamp teammates Tanner Eggert and Peng Wang. Liu noted that their contributions were essential to their team’s win, as well the contributions of their previous bootcamp teammates, Muhammad Junaid Amin and Dawei Zhang. “We got paired two times with two very good teammates,” Liu said, “I would say that is the biggest treasure of it.”

With their first-place victory in hand and their project refined, the Project Plastic team can now look towards the next steps of getting their product out into the world. During the June bootcamp, they were able to interview potential customers, including a landscaping firm and a wastewater treatment company. Liu mentioned the different potential types of buyers, from early purchasers who buy one or two modules for their ponds, to corporate sponsors and government contractors. The goal is to mass produce the modules so that they can be used by a variety of different customer groups all over the world. 

Two sets of hands holding the quarter scale model of Project Plastic's prototype

Quarter scale model of Project Plastic's prototype (Photo via Project Plastic)

They have a roadmap of the potential next stage of their company. During the January bootcamp, AdventureList, an online marketplace for guided adventure sports founded by Jeff Phaneuf *21 won top startup. Using the $10,000 cash prize from Princeton Innovation, he and his team built their website, secured other business essentials, and launched their company in the summer. This fall, Phaneuf enrolled in the M.B.A. program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business with the goal of combining the entrepreneurial communities of the two schools to help AdventureList take the next step. Phaneuf’s path offers a potential blueprint for Project Plastic as they bring their product to market.

VentureWell, a renowned startup accelerator, will lead the next edition of the Princeton Startup Bootcamp in January 2022 during Wintersession. Registration opens on November 1. For more information, visit the Princeton Startup Bootcamp page.

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