Alumni Voices, Impact House, Research and Ideas

Jeanny Yao, Co-Founder of BioCellection, Talks Sustainability and Humanity

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Jeanny Yao and Miranda Wang’s company has broken down 10,000 plastic bags. Scientists, social entrepreneurs, friends since high school, and recent Forbes 30 Under 30 honorees, Yao and Wang founded BioCellection about three and a half years ago. The company has developed a technology that is able to chemically recycle polyethylene, which makes up a third of all plastics produced and is difficult to recycle through traditional means. BioCellection turns polyethylene into chemicals that can then be used to create other materials.

Yao was also a participant in our 2016 Social Impact House, and she talked to us about her time with CSIS and where BioCellection is headed. As the Chief Operating Officer, Yao is “very in tune with the daily operations of the lab,” and now focuses on facilitating the team’s growth strategy. Wang is the CEO, and is in charge of external-facing work, such as building partnerships, fundraising, and handling press.

Yao at the Social Impact House in 2016.

Since opening, the company has expanded to seven employees, and their technology “has pivoted” to focus on just chemistry rather than biotechnology. They are also working on developing their team culture and fostering a “supportive, positive, caring, progressive” environment. But the company’s goal has always been the same: “to create…a technology that can effectively turn plastics into valuable and marketable products.”

BioCellection’s goal has always been the same: “to create…a technology that can effectively turn plastics into valuable and marketable products.”

Reflecting on her time at the Social Impact House, Yao says that she is “so stoked about the experience, it was just so fantastic.” While she notes that the workshops she attended were helpful in developing her ideas, what stands out to her most is what she refers to as “that extra layer of humanity.” Even though everyone was there to work on furthering their social impact ventures, they were also there to get to know one another and support their peers. “People were so lovely to each other,” she recalled. “I felt so loved and included and supported…people were seeing me as an individual [and not just] in the context of my work, of my company, of my technology, which was really refreshing.”

This is why she encourages others in the social enterprise sector to find support networks like the one she found here. There are “so many questions, and so many unknowns” when you’re starting a project like this one, and “resilience is so important.” At the Social Impact House, “a lot of it was just about feeling motivated, and encouraged to continue that grind…you have to have optimism, you have to have the right mindset and attitude.” Yao noted that even though she has a lot of passion driving her project, she recognizes the challenges that come with social entrepreneurship work. “The most important thing that I would tell someone is don’t give up!” she says.

At the Social Impact House, “a lot of it was just about feeling motivated, and encouraged to continue that grind…you have to have optimism, you have to have the right mindset and attitude.”

BioCellection is at the brink of some exciting changes right now. They’ve completed the lab prototype of their technology and are trying to scale up into a demonstration unit, which is the immediate step before commercialization. “We are putting a lot of effort into making this demonstration a success,” Yao says. The company is working with partners such as the City of San Jose and GreenWaste Recovery, who have been “huge champions of our work.” They are on the lookout for partners in the chemical industry as they begin this new phase of their work.

And, of course, the company has been recognized by Forbes, which Yao says is “a huge honor.” Aside from being a “confidence booster,” it’s something that will hopefully catch the attention of additional people–such as potential investors or incoming partners–who don’t already know about the company’s work. It “sets the bar a little higher,” Yao says.

Wang and Yao, right, in the field.

It’s certainly impressive to us. BioCellection’s work is hugely important to our planet’s future, and we congratulate Yao and Wang and wish them luck as they continue to break new ground in the world of sustainability.

Jeanny Yao is Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of BioCellection. At the age of 17, Jeanny presented her research findings on plastics degradation and upcycling at the TED2013 conference together with her then-research partner, Miranda Wang. Prior to co-founding BioCellection, she conducted plastics research at the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto in Canada. She was named one of MacLean’s “Ones to Watch” (2013) and selected by Plan Canada as one of the “Top 20 Under 20” (2014). Jeanny was the co-recipient of the Penn-Columbia Social Impact Fellowship (2016) and is the first-named inventor of BioCellection patents. Jeanny holds an Honors Bachelor of Science in biochemistry and environmental science from the University of Toronto.