Banyan Environmental, a Providence-based startup founded in 2009, was recently awarded a $200,000 grant from the R.I. Science and Technology Advisory Council.
Providence Business News spoke with Love Sarin, CEO and president, who founded the company after completing his Ph.D. studies at Brown University, about the award, its white paper and how new consumer consciousness about the environment will fuel demand for Banyan’s products.
Five Questions With: Love Sarin
PBN: First, tell us about Banyan Environmental.
SARIN: Banyan Environmental is an early stage startup, with a platform technology to capture mercury vapor. We are targeting the energy sector on both ends - the consumption and generation markets. On the energy consumption side, changes in legislation and other factors are resulting in more and more businesses and individuals using energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs. By reducing energy consumption, these bulbs also lower greenhouse gas emissions.
However, every fluorescent light bulb contains mercury, making the cleaning of broken light bulbs and their disposal potentially hazardous to humans and the environment. Essentially, we have a situation in which hundreds of millions of fluorescent lights are sold into the market but there is no easy way to address the potential mercury hazards.
With Banyan’s unique mercury capture technology, we can not only absorb the mercury but can also stabilize it in a safe manner. We are developing novel and low-cost packaging and clean-up products to prevent consumers and workers from mercury exposure when the lights break. These products will provide the much-needed safety and convenience to the consumers of these energy-efficient lights. Second, on the energy generation side, we plan to target the mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, which are the biggest source of mercury pollution in the United States.
Banyan spun out of Brown University in the fall of 2009 and got an exclusive license to develop and commercialize this powerful mercury capture technology which was invented at Brown. The company was founded by two scientists from Brown, with a dream to use a science-based approach in targeting the world’s impending environmental problems. Our first target is mercury, but we envision the company to grow like a Banyan tree with branches that take root in the ground making the tree stronger and more expansive than before. We recently moved into the Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship incubator and hope to fuel the engine of the knowledge economy in Rhode Island.
PBN: You received a sizeable grant on Feb. 3 from the R.I. Science and Technology Advisory Council. What can you tell us about that? I understand Banyan is undergoing a bit of a transformation with this new funding.
SARIN: Yes, in collaboration with Brown University, we have been awarded a Research Alliance grant. Our main focus so far has been on the mercury exposure prevention from broken fluorescent lights. This award will support the research and development work needed to take our core technology to the next level and get it closer for implementation in the mercury emission-control market, which has an even bigger mercury problem. For example, it is estimated that environmental mercury pollution puts more than 300,000 newborns at the risk of impaired neurodevelopment each year in the United States. Currently, the biggest contributors of mercury pollution are coal-fired power plants, which emit about 48 metric tons of mercury annually in the U.S. The EPA is expected to roll out new stringent regulations to regulate these emissions by the end of 2011. Our technology has the potential to efficiently address this problem, and the new RIRA award from STAC has given us the impetus to do that.
PBN: Speaking of funding, since its inception in 2009, what investments has Banyan attracted?
SARIN: Before we spun out of Brown, we were awarded an advanced E-Team grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. In 2009 we received $150,000 in a Small Business Technology Transfer Phase I award from the National Science Foundation, which helped us take our technology from the lab bench to real-scale performance demonstration.
The funding so far has helped us define some important parameters for scale-up, and we have demonstrated the efficacy and potential with some real-scale performance testing. In 2011, we are looking for modest private investment to bolster the momentum to hit the lighting market and get the technology ready to pilot-test for the emission control market.
PBN: You also released a white paper on preventing exposure to mercury, why now? Who should read it?
SARIN: The paper is good reading for anyone who does not know the potential hazards found in fluorescent lights. We have found that there is a lack of understanding regarding the mercury content in fluorescent lamps and what happens with mercury when a bulb breaks. Additionally, the awareness about how the current packaging fails to prevent mercury exposure is also missing. We produced the paper, in part, to address this lack of awareness.
In our analysis, we tested the current packaging for its ability to provide safety from mercury released by broken lamps and compared with our technology. Our results clearly indicate that this accidental mercury exposure can be easily prevented with novel packaging solutions which incorporate our technology. We address both the linear tube-type fluorescent lamps, which are mostly used in commercial buildings, and the compact fluorescent lamps which are used in households and demonstrate that our technology can substantially reduce mercury exposure.
Everyone should read it: household consumers, facility managers in schools, hospitals, commercial buildings and any electrical contractors who handle fluorescent lamps. They should know that there is a solution which can protect them and their workers from accidental mercury exposure.
PBN: What has been the hardest part about getting this venture off the ground, so to speak? What does 2011 hold in store for Banyan?
SARIN: Startups are always challenging, just by the sheer nature of novelty and uncertainty that surrounds them. We are in the clean-tech space, targeting an environmental problem, which makes it even more difficult. There is a preconceived notion that consumers do not want to pay for products that will prevent environmental hazards. We believe that this attitude is changing, however. There is a new consciousness among the consumers. They not only want to hold the big corporations responsible for the environmental impact of their actions, but they are willing to go a step further and consciously make environmental choices. In fact, there is a growing demand for the products that Banyan can provide, in emerging economies too where massive adoption of CFLs is in store. This puts us in an unusually attractive place, where a small startup has the potential to create new jobs in the United States and actually create an export market.
It took us some time to develop the product and [pinpoint] this environmental spirit in the consumers. We expect it to snowball and with some investment hit the shop floor to give them what they need – a choice of safety, to protect them and the planet.