Stellenbosch University (SU) spinout company Urobo Biotech has established itself as global research leader by presenting at the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) held in Dubai recently and by clinching first place in the research-based business category of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Intervarsity National Finals in Gauteng.
Postgraduate students at the Department of Microbiology, Wessel Myburgh and Dominique Rocher have, through SU’s Innovus Division, established Urobo Biotech to commercialise technology that uses microbial enzymes to break down certain types of plastics – especially bioplastics – and potentially recycle them to valuable fuels and chemicals.
“We aim to reduce the cost incurred to organic waste processing facilities (due to incineration and landfilling of the bioplastic waste) by at least 50%. Furthermore, preliminary evaluation of our technology for this purpose shows that we can boost the biogas production in a facility employing our technology by 54%,” says Myburgh.
Gaining international recognition
In the past four years, the company has through its partnership with the University of Padova (UniPD), where both students are involved in a joint PhD programme, been able to partner with companies in Italy to test its technology.
Urobo’s research is already making waves and it was selected from nearly 3 000 applications from 100 countries to feature at COP28’s Protypes for Humanity, an initiative that brings together graduates, academics, and leaders in various fields to collaborate on innovative solutions with real-world impact.
Myburgh, who represented Urobo in Dubai, says SU is regarded as a world leader in innovation. ”Urobo’s exhibition at Prototypes for Humanity and attendance at COP28 was an incredible opportunity for us to showcase our technology on a global platform. For us it was also a chance to really stand back and critically look at our role within the global effort to tackle the massively complex issue of climate change,” says Myburgh.
The EDHE Entrepreneurship competition identifies top entrepreneurs from South African universities and provides exposure to potential investors. Rocher reflects: “Pitching at the EDHE National Student Entrepreneurship Competition alongside representatives from 26 South African universities was truly inspiring. It’s not just about winning, but about being part of a diverse community of innovative minds dedicated to making a positive impact. The experience reinforced the importance of bridging the gap between academia and industry. Winning first place in the Research-based Businesses category is testament to our team’s commitment to innovation and sustainability.”
Addressing the plastic problem
While often regarded as the preferable alternative to traditional plastics, bioplastics – made of biodegradable materials from renewable sources – can also create problems for waste management facilities by blocking pumps, filters, and screens, explains Myburgh. This means that waste management facilities often opt to send these plastics to incinerators or landfills which is not only contrary to sustainable waste management practices, but also costly.
In Europe, most bioplastics are earmarked to go to the organic waste management systems where they also recycle food and organic waste to produce energy and CO2 in the form of biogas. However, many of these facilities are not designed to handle this huge influx of bioplastic waste. It costs a single medium-sized facility in Italy about €800 000 per year to send waste to incinerators or landfill, says Myburgh.
Bioplastics also pose a challenge for established recycling facilities of PET (polyethylene terephthalate – the basic unprocessed material used to produce plastic products), as large quantities of PLA (polylactic acid or polylactide), a type of bioplastic, can disrupt the thermo-mechanical recycling process used to recycle PET. It causes aesthetic and physical changes to the recycled resin that reduces the quality and sell ability of the recycled PET, explains Myburgh.
Urobo addresses these challenges by offering drop-in pre-treatment processes that use microbial enzymes to break down the bioplastics entering these facilities. The breakdown products (hydrolysate) can then be sent to the existing digesters of organic waste processing facilities to allow the native microbial consortium to convert this hydrolysate to biogas. “For PET recyclers the PLA fraction in the mixture of PLA and PET can be selectively broken down by our enzyme solutions to produce lactic acid that can be purified and sold as a high value chemical product,” explains Myburgh.
The next step is getting waste management facilities on board, notes Myburgh. “We are aware that existing facilities are reluctant to implement a new technology that deviates from their business-as-usual operations. However, we believe that we offer a strong case that shows added benefit for them (in terms of cost reduction and increased value/revenue) which will hopefully convince uptake of our technology by several industrial facilities in the future.”
The Urobo team has secured grant funding for a new project working with industrial facilities in Italy to pilot its technology at one of their sites in 2025. “This will give us insight into the commercial viability of our processes, and this will also serve as the first commercial case study of our technology.” Urobo’s attendance at COP28 also provided an opportunity to engage with potential investors, adds Myburgh. “We are confident that this will allow Urobo to implement its commercialisation strategy in the coming years.”
Myburgh emphasises that Urobo has never pitched its technology as the definitive answer to plastic waste. “Tackling the problems associated with our plastic consumption as a society will require a multitude of technologies, policy interventions and public engagement to really have impact. If Urobo can be part of that process to realise impact and climate action then we have done our part, just as many others are needed to do their part.”
SU’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, Prof Sibusiso Moyo, said “Stellenbosch University congratulates the Urobo team, and particularly Prof Marinda Viljoen-Bloom, with what she achieved with these students. “Prof Alf Botha, Head of the Microbiology Department, is an amazing leader who creates a vibrant environment for creative thinking, innovation, and translation of these ideas to startups and new solutions that translate into direct solutions for problems which our society and communities face. I would like to thank the Department, the Faculty of Science, the Launchlab Team and Innovus for the support they continue to give to the SU ecosystem.”