Above: chess pieces derived from bamboo-based plastics, made by Michigan-based Pivot Materials.
Tell Kylee Guenther, who founded the sustainable plastics startup Pivot Materials, that she can’t do something, and you’ll only harden her resolve—which is not a bad trait for an entrepreneur.
Told when she was young that it didn’t matter if she was good at math because she was “just a girl,” she channeled her fury into working harder. Years later, testing her idea for Pivot at a pitch competition, she was told once again she was wasting her time, and that her product was impossible to make. She held up the prototype in her hands and told the skeptics, “I know we can do this.”
Today this millennial entrepreneur now owns her own Detroit-based company, which manufactures advanced materials from bamboo and other natural materials that can be used in place of fossil fuel-based plastics. Pivot says it counts four of the Forbes 100 largest companies among their customers. “For a scrappy startup like ours, that’s a huge big deal,” she told TriplePundit.
Guenther is an admittedly “trash-obsessed” person. “I’m kind of just fascinated and saddened by trash. I want to understand why we have it and where it goes,” she says. That fascination started when she was little.
“I was always interested in environmental issues even before I knew what an environmental issue was,” Guenther said. “I wanted to be vegetarian as little girl and I was always interested in recycling.” With no recycling facilities in the rural town outside of Detroit where she grew up, she’d have her parents drive her to one after she’d amassed a collection of cans.
Plastics was also a topic around the dinner table. Guenther is the second generation in her family to work in the plastics industry, as her father was among the early designers of plastic packaging materials like one-gallon milk jugs. “So, I grew up basically on the shop floor and I learned about plastics from the bottom up,” she said. “And I saw all the amazing things daddy could do with plastic but at same time I was mortified by all the mess it created. I wanted to get into the industry and do something more in touch with my feelings about sustainability.”
Joining up with Pivot Co-Founder and Engineering Manager Raju Patil, who had done research focused on bamboo, Guenther says they knew they had found the material to launch their business. “Bamboo is engineered by nature to grow strong and straight and has amazing mechanical properties,” she said. The world’s fastest-growing plant and a champion carbon sequester, bamboo met Pivot’s requirements as a highly sustainable material. Then Pivot developed its own proprietary process for turning it into a biomaterial without using the harsh chemicals often used by other manufacturers that use bamboo to produce fabrics and other materials.
“I’m a firm believer that everything we need on earth is already here without creating a lot of synthetics and that’s the goal with Pivot,” Guenther added. “We want to pivot the plastics industry and reduce as much as possible the use of plastics and create something that is more sustainable and at the same time keep up with our modern lifestyles.”
Pivot may be on to something. Forbes has said the materials industry, pervasive but stagnant, is ripe for disruption and Guenther expects it will be one of the hottest fields for start-ups over the next decade. She sees the demand coming primarily from two forces: first, her own generation’s overwhelming support for brands that support causes they care about. Some 73 percent of millennials have been the most willing of any age group to pay for sustainable offerings, according to a 2015 Nielsen poll.
And second, she commends recent government regulation around stemming the use of plastics, especially from Europe, which has declared war on plastic waste as well as Canada, which aims to ban single-use plastic by 2021. “It’s so powerful to see this happen,” she said.
The combination of government support and the growing commitment of companies around the world to find plastics alternatives has customers turning to firms like Pivot. Guenther says the world’s first bamboo fiber reinforced shipping pallet was created with her company’s materials. She was staggered to discover that almost half the trees in the U.S. that are cut down annually are used to make shipping pallets, which in turn are generally used only one to five times before they are discarded. “Ours can be used many, many times,” she noted.
And Pivot expects to make an announcement soon about Pivot’s launch of the world’s first car part made out of a bamboo fiber reinforced composite, which will go into production next year. The company is looking into other natural materials for research and development, too.
For example, rice hulls, a waste product that accumulates after this crop is harvested in countries like India, is often burned – in turn contributing to regional air pollution. Striving to be part of the solution to this waste problem, Pivot has begun buying rice hulls, boosting rural farmers’ income. Those rice hulls are then processed into composite materials that can then “give trash a second life.” Additional ideas percolating around Pivot include the use of coffee processing waste as a potentially new base material.
Guenther is confident that “in five years we will be a force to be reckoned with in the plastics industry. I don’t think ever again in life I will have the chance to do something that has the potential to positively impact every person who lives on the planet.”
Don’t forget: Later this month, we’ll be hosting 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands – What's Next, October 29-30, at MGM National Harbor, just outside Washington, D.C. Kylee Guenther will join several exceptional women onstage during the afternoon of the 29th to share her journey toward becoming the CEO of an innovative startup.
We're pleased to offer 3p readers a 25 percent discount on attending the Forum. Please register by going to the 3BL Forum website and use this discount code when prompted: NEWS2019BRANDS.
Image credits: Pivot Materials
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.