Princeton microplastics solution takes off with help from NSF I-Corps Northeast Hub

Written by
Alaina O'Regan, Office of the Dean for Research
June 10, 2022

A team from Princeton will advance to a nationally recognized innovation program that helps transition university inventions into solutions that can benefit society. The team will receive a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps).

The researchers’ goal? To purify the world’s water supply in a revolutionary new way.

The Plastic Hunter device floating in a stream. It floats on the water like a raft.

Courtesy of Plastic Hunter team.

The team is tackling microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic smaller than the size of a pea found in water supplies around the world. These microplastics have the potential to cause harm when ingested by humans and animals.

The Princeton-based team, called Project Plastic, is developing a revolutionary piece of technology designed to filter out these tiny contaminants.

To explore the potential for this technology to succeed as a product, the team signed up for a program offered by the NSF-sponsored I-Corps Northeast Hub, a multi-university entrepreneurship training program that launched earlier this year. The Hub provided the team with instruction, mentorship and a $3,000 grant to enable conversations with potential customers about how the invention can help solve real-world challenges.

Project Plastic stemmed from the research of Yidian Liu and Nathaniel Banks while they were graduate students in Princeton University’s School of Architecture. The two wanted to explore how architectural systems could be used to remediate the plastic pollution in our waterways.

Liu, co-founder and chief operating officer of Project Plastic, said their innovation began with one central goal in mind: to figure out how to collect microplastic from the waterways, a serious problem for which no practical solution exists.

Banks, the team’s co-founder and chief technical officer, and Liu got in touch with other graduate students at Princeton, and formed an interdisciplinary group to conduct experiments on microplastics to find out what type of system would work for their goal.

After a series of experiments, data analysis, and trial and error, the team developed a device that they named the Plastic Hunter.

“It’s the world’s first portable, affordable, low-maintenance microplastic collecting device,” Liu said.

The Plastic Hunter is a small raft that floats on top of the water. Underneath hangs a network of artificial root fibers that catch and trap the microplastics floating in the surrounding water. The team designed the device to avoid disturbing the ecosystem and to allow fish and other creatures to swim past it easily.

Step-by-step diagram showing how the plastic hunter works in more detail.

Courtesy of Project Plastic team.

Before moving forward with their project, the team realized they would first need to find out if there was a potential market for their product.

“We’d be wasting our time doing all these experiments to find out that no one wants to buy our device or use it,” Banks said.

This uncertainty is what led them to sign up for the four-week program offered by the I-Corps Northeast Hub, a consortium of universities in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

During the program, researchers explore one of the primary reasons that startups fail: lack of demand for the product. Participants conduct numerous interviews with potential users to find out how the technology fits with industry needs. The practice of “customer discovery” is central to the I-Corps approach.

Through customer interviews, Liu, Banks and their team built connections with people in the water-purification industry, learned about the market landscape for their product, and connected with I-Corps mentors who helped them through the process of refining their innovation.

“We learned a lot about the structure of the industry,” Banks said. “It wasn’t quite what we thought it would be.”

Banks said one of the biggest challenges the team faced was being taken seriously about what they were developing, especially since he and Liu come from architectural backgrounds.

The I-Corps program helped with this, Banks said, because getting in touch with their market enabled them to design the technology to address relevant needs.

Liu said that another advantage of I-Corps was helping the team develop their interview skills. She said they learned skills such as how to approach people, how to start a conversation, and how to connect with people on LinkedIn without being rejected.

Part of the instruction, provided entirely online due to the pandemic, involved meeting with small groups, or “pods” of I-Corps participants. Class sessions would break out into pods for in-depth discussions and lessons, with pod mentors assigned to guide them through the process.

“The pod mentors serve as ‘floating’ mentors for the teams in their industry domain,” said Christina Pellicane, assistant director of innovation at Princeton University and lead instructor for the Northeast I-Corps Hub. “They work with teams throughout the four-week program by interacting during the educational sessions and holding office hours for one-on-one meetings with teams.”

The Project Plastic team found this aspect of the program particularly helpful.

“The mentor component was really supportive,” Banks said. “Every single group we met with gave us fantastic advice on how to really connect with people in our sector, both in conferences and over Zoom.”

What’s next?

After completing the I-Corps Northeast Hub regional program, the Project Plastic team felt confident that their invention had potential. They decided to take the next step and apply for the national I-Corps Teams program, and have been accepted to a program beginning later this year.

The seven-week program will help the team continue to hone their market and the skills they need to navigate it. The program extends the focus on experiential learning and goes into depth on topics such as engaging with industry, talking to customers and competitors, and creating a professional demonstration narrative for potential partners.

As part of the national program, each I-Corps team works with a faculty member who serves as Principal Investigator (PI) as they continue to develop their entrepreneurship pathway.

Jannette Carey, Princeton’s faculty lead for the Northeast Hub and the PI for two previous teams that successfully completed the national program, will be working with Project Plastic as their PI.

“Having had that experience, I know what the teams will be expected to do, and how they're expected to perform,” Carey said. “And I think I can help them in that regard.”

“I think getting a really detailed understanding of our customer ecosystem and everything around it is something we can gain from this national program,” Liu said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

Along with the continuation of the program comes a $50,000 grant, which Banks said will be “huge” for them.

Banks said that while they’ve raised funding for experiments and paying overheads, they were not able to allot any funding for marketing.

“This will actually give us the opportunity to travel to attend events, connect with people in the field at very relevant conferences, and hopefully learn more about our ecosystem and make more connections that are useful,” Banks said.

Project Plastic has also participated in other Princeton programs for researchers interested in startups and entrepreneurships, including the Princeton Startup Bootcamp, offered by the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, and the Keller Center Innovation Forum.

The team also includes Tanner Eggert, business lead and Princeton graduate student in chemistry, Muhammad Junaid Amin, lead researcher and Princeton postdoctoral research associate; and Xi Chen, lead researcher and Princeton associate research scholar.

The vision of Project Plastic goes beyond just clearing microplastics from waterways. The team is also developing a plan to upcycle microplastics by decomposing them into valuable chemical compounds, which in turn could create a circular economy around microplastics.

Once the Plastic Hunter is widely implemented, the team plans to record quantities of microplastics in rivers and display the data on an interactive map. It will be the first microplastics pollution map, and will help river keepers discern the level of pollutants in their waterways as well as inform the public about microplastics.

The connections that Project Plastic built through I-Corps have allowed them to progress with their innovation with the confidence that they are moving in the right direction. They have connected with several New Jersey-based wastewater treatment plants that have given valuable insight into their market, and an important upcoming step will be to conduct pilot tests with these plants in the near future.

As the team works on engineering a prototype for full-scale pilot development, they look forward to building knowledge and skills and forming more connections through the national I-Corps Teams program.

About the I-Corps Northeast Hub:

The NSF I-Corps Northeast Hub is part of a nationwide network of universities formed to accelerate the economic impact of federally funded research – delivering benefits in health care, the environment, technology and other areas – while building skills and opportunities among researchers from all backgrounds, including those historically underrepresented in entrepreneurship. The Hub consists of Princeton University (principal institution), University of Delaware, Rutgers University, Lehigh University, Temple University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University, and Delaware State University. The Hub will expand by adding new affiliates each year.