A conversation with Niall Dunne and John North
Editor’s Note: British start-up Polymateria exists to help solve the global fugitive plastic problem, with technology that helps ensure that plastics that escape from the circular economy can fully biodegrade in the natural environment. Polymateria CEO Niall Dunne shared the Polymateria story at the 22 May ABIS Knowledge into Action Forum 2019 at the Unilever Four Acres leadership center in London.
As background, 32% of all plastics produced become “fugitive” — that is, not captured into recycling or circular systems — in our oceans and on land. While biodegradable plastics seem to be a positive solution, scientific research doesn’t support this conclusion. See this May 2019 Guardian article: “Plastic bags that claim to be biodegradable were still intact and able to carry shopping three years after being exposed to the natural environment,” and are subject to fragmentation into microplastics.
GRLI Executive Director John North caught up with Niall Dunne at the event in London to discuss corporate sustainability and responsible leadership.
John North: Niall, our friendship goes back 12 years to when we were consultants at Accenture in Dublin. What I remember is our shared interest in the emerging discipline of corporate sustainability strategy as a competitive and business advantage. At that time, it was still often seen as traditional risk management. How do you see this arena today?
Niall Dunne: At the KIAF meeting, I was asked to talk about the importance of collaboration and in particular how business and academia need to work hard to collaborate and the different ways they see the world.
That was the origin for Polymateria — our founders looking at previous efforts to biodegrade plastic and asking the question, “Why isn’t it working? What scientifically has been holding back innovation in this space?”
So they asked polymer scientists to explain why polymers act differently in the natural environment. The polymer scientists said, “Well, we understand this bit, but we don’t understand nature.” So they then brought biologists, and biologists started looking at the natural agents of decay and looked at how organic matter behaves. But they didn’t have all the answers either.
So then they brought chemists in. Through this collaboration with the scientific community, they started to reach a deeper understanding of why biodegradability in the natural world hadn’t been a viable option.
Together, these scientists realized that previous efforts were just fracturing the plastics — leading to micro plastic pollution. Polymateria’s innovation, with the help of biologists and chemists, attacks the hard crystalline region of the polymer, radically cleaving it apart, then mimics natural processes to ensure full assimilation in the natural environment.
Polymateria’s solution, called Biotransformation, does not create micro plastics, does not impact recycling, and completely biodegrades a littered plastic product.
These new materials last as long as they need to, based on what the product is supposed to do, with the hopes that they will be captured into recycling and circular loops. After that, if the plastic escapes into the environment, the chemical transformation starts to happen via nature’s four agents of decay — light, air, moisture and microbes. All that’s left is carbon dioxide, water and microbes (biomass).
Corporate sustainability strategies today require the same trans-disciplinary thinking and action which Polymateria value and that GRLI has been advocating for over the last decade.
John: It’s one thing to have an innovative product to offer. It’s another to successfully commercialize it into an established global value chain. How are you dealing with this reality, and what can all of us learn from it?
Niall: It’s a huge challenge. The plastics industry has a complex, 100-year-old global value chain linking master batch providers, resin providers, chemical companies, and packaging converters. Launching a new technology takes at least 18 months to validate the technology, run trials and tests at small and then larger scale. Then you have to find the right licensees, who reflect your ambition & values, to successfully implement it in markets all around the world.
For a small business like ours, that’s strong at R&D, we’re finding that we have to build muscles and capabilities to disrupt every single part of the system. The analogy we use is breaking the walls of the business down. We don’t find ourselves just having to work across the whole value chain –we actually have to work beyond the value chain as it exists today. We have to engage new partners in the technology. And we have to build the muscles internally to be able to do that. It’s much more like operating as a network, thats adept at bringing the world in, better informing your innovation and getting their help to disrupt the system.
We had to be prepared to open source certain parts of our IP, in order to really move the agenda forward. We saw Tesla do us with their own IP, because they realized they’re up against the internal combustion engine in a fixed value chain with a fixed set of goalposts. Faced with this reality, Elon Musk open sourced his IP to try and use the crowd create a new supply chain.
We do the same open sourcing with our IP, from a standards and a test perspective. Collaboration also lets new ideas come into the conversation, so that we collectively build a new set of goalposts.
For us, collaborating opens new opportunities to connect with the broader community of interested people and leverage their interest in solutions to help the whole industry move forward.
John: As Polymateria seeks new pathways for solutions to emerge, what are your constants in terms of internal values?
Niall: A few things. The first thing is integrity. From the moment that you decide, you’re going to put your head above the parapet and say we’re going to solve that particular global challenge, you’re only as strong as your weakest decision, or you’re only as strong as the weakest component of your technology, because the degree of scrutiny that you have to undergo as a business will be off the charts.
I knew we were doing something right earlier this year. One of our most recent hires stopped our some high-net-worth potential investors from coming into the laboratories. She stopped them and said, “Sorry, gentlemen, no coffee in the laboratories.”
If she can do that, you can trust her to make a decision about the integrity of the technology. She’s not going to short circuit test results or tell you something is testing well if that’s not the case.
As a leader, you find yourself looking for these little gems, these little moments where somebody stands up, and just speaks truth to power. You want that to be the new normal within your business.
The second thing is capability. If integrity is the foundation you’re building on, everything about your capability has to be developed with an understanding of each person’s strengths and weaknesses.
We found that our polymer scientists needed to work with biologists and chemists. From a scientific perspective, we started covering our blind spots. We had to extend that into the rest of the business. Diversity gets used a lot, almost like in a kind of a tick box type exercise. For us, thinking about diversity, it is an ability to look at problems differently. And be aware of what you don’t know. Find and hire people who will complement that some of it is behavioral, as well as capability.
Your role as a leader in creating that capability is to actively look for those people as you’re recruiting. Then empower them, with the right structures and parameters in place around decision making.
How are you as a leader working to create trust between the individuals? Unless you’re able to create trust, you don’t achieve synergies within your organization. If the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, that’s the start of silos.
The third thing is how you collaborate. So again, this gets used an awful lot as a cliche. So I’m just going to talk a little bit about how to help all of the people in and beyond your value chain to buy into your mission, and pull in the same direction as you.
As an organization, we obviously have limited resources. You only ever have limited resources. So you’re dependent on trying to unlock people’s own sense of purpose and their own sense of conviction, within all of the different organizations that will buy into your mission. Your mission has to be something that’s big enough to create many winners. They all have to feel like that mission is bigger than you as a business. It’s bigger than all of them.
And you have to try and convene and create interventions that will allow them to listen, to create shared ownership, rather than trying to impose your will and your technology on the world.
For example: I think many of the digital “unicorn” businesses that we’re seeing kind of going from zero to hero within a 10 year time frame, aren’t building those muscles. They’re seeing the world through a digital lens, and they’re trying to change society to fit their worldview.
I think they’d be a lot better off if they spent a lot more time understanding our human values. What are the things that have made us work as a society? And what are the big Nexus issues that ultimately their technology sits at the heart of?
The final point I’d like to make is to urge collaboration with academia partners. They’re part of your capability. They’re part of how you collaborate. Having them with you on that journey is ultimately how you’re going to convince the world that a previous effort failed scientifically, and that a new way is needed. They will put their own reputations, their own careers, their own institutions on the line to stand up for the bigger picture.
Building muscles that allow you to collaborate and draw the world together can be a very difficult thing to do as an organization. But for business like Polymateria, it’s fundamental to our success. Unless we define the new goalposts and redefine our value chain together, we won’t get where we need to go.
John: Finally, how do you connect what you’re doing at Polymateria and in your professional capacity to your personal life and way of living?
I connect what I’m doing from a professional perspective to my personal life and way of living by finding a moment every day where I can be out in nature, ideally exercising, and processing a lot of the complexity that comes with leadership at a senior level — to try and find the right way through any given situation or any political or technical challenge. I find if I do that regularly, religiously, that on average I make more good decisions than bad decisions and the organization benefits as a consequence.