Every week on The Primer we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves in eight simple takes. This week we talk to Dr Will Barker, CEO of biotech startup Mint Innovation which recovers valuable metals from electronic waste.
ONE: How did Mint Innovation start and what was the inspiration behind it?
Mint was founded in 2016 following several years evaluating a wide variety of early-stage technology, particularly cleantech. companies. Having stepped out of biotech firm LanzaTech in 2015 when they relocated all operations to the US, a colleague and I started looking at technologies and business proposals that fulfilled some of the learnings from our journey at LanzaTech. We were particularly interested in clean technologies that maximised the value differential between a waste stream input and a value product output. We also had a bias towards biotech and quickly identified a group of microorganisms that had some really interesting properties involving gold and other valuable metals.
TWO: Did you have any interest/experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to starting Mint?
Yes, my co-founder and I had collectively spent almost 20 years at LanzaTech – developing and commercialising another piece of clean technology that would convert carbon-containing gases (such as steel mill off gases) to fuels and chemicals. Having developed the start-up bug at one of New Zealand’s most successful deep tech start ups, we were extremely keen to continue the journey with a new piece of technology when the opportunity arose.
THREE: How much of an issue is e-waste today?
Approximately 45 million tonnes of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2016 and this is forecast to increase to over 52 million tonnes by 2021. The metallic value in electronics discarded in 2016 was estimated to be US$47 billion. This includes US$22 billion in gold, found primarily in printed circuit boards (PCBs). Found in computers, tablets, and mobile/smartphones, PCBs contain a mixture of valuable base and precious metals (eg: copper for conductive tracks, gold plating for connective pins) among silica and plastic resin.
This “urban ore” makes for an attractive initial feedstock – although PCBs only form ~4% of gross e-waste mass, they contain ~40% of the total metallic value (left in landfill, PCBs may ‘leach’ heavy metals that could enter waterways).
FOUR Mint’s website states that it’s “developing innovative approaches to biometallurgy”. Can you explain what biometallurgy is and what “innovative approaches” Mint is trying to develop?
Biometallurgy is a generic term that includes bioleaching, biosorption and bioaccumulation of metals. In other words, a microorganism is used to dissolve, adsorb or accumulate metals. Biometallurgy can be used in a variety of applications, such as waste recycling, remediation, and water treatment. But it’s perhaps most well known for the recovery of copper from low grade ores throughout the world.
Mint uses a proprietary process to selectively concentrate gold and other precious metals from low concentration, mixed metal streams to cleanly and effectively recover the pure metals.
FIVE What sort of technology does Mint use and what applications are there for it?
Using a combination of metallurgy and biometallurgy, we use our proprietary technology to recover precious metals from dilute sources, such as mining residues and discarded print circuit boards. Mint takes the discarded PCBs, recovers the precious metals for re-use while producing potentially valuable by-products.
The recovered precious metals can be used in exactly the same way the conventionally mined metals are used. They can be reused in electronics, jewellery or held for investment.
SIX: What is New Zealand’s record like with e-waste? What usually happens to items like discarded phones and laptop?
While there are a number of New Zealand recycling companies doing great work in preventing electronic waste being discarded into landfill, a recent UN Report identified New Zealand as one of the worst offenders in documenting the collection of e-waste. Many overseas countries have subsidies and product stewardship programs in place to minimise the amount of electronic waste heading to landfill. But New Zealand has yet to enact any similar schemes, so local recyclers are working on very slim margins. The Mint technology is expected to provide greater returns to recyclers by enabling increasing volumes of electronic waste to be processed in an environmentally responsible manner.
SEVEN: Do you have any other plans to scale/grow further and if so, what are they?
As a pre-revenue company, we’re reliant on private investment to develop and grow our business. Following successful completion of a pilot phase in December 2018, we raised $5.2 million in December from New Zealand and international investors to continue the development programme. The additional capital provides the ideal runway for taking the Mint technology to market.
Since raising the capital, we’ve increased our bandwidth significantly by employing several new chemists and engineers and are rapidly completing the process prototyping. With potential customers across the globe, our long term plan is to deploy plants in cities and metro areas throughout the world.
EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a New Zealand start-up or business that you really admire right now.
My utmost respect goes out to the team at Level Two, a Parnell-based tech cluster. We’re currently headquartered at Level Two along with a number of other early stage tech development companies. The cluster provides an awesome environment for growing any deep tech company with LanzaTech and Rocket Lab being previously involved. The Level Two team and other company founders/teams provide assistance and advice across the board, saving huge amounts of time and money for companies following what’s becoming a well-trodden path.