Innovation: Combatting the invasion of Microplastics
Global Challenge: Climate Emergency
University of Alberta’s Irina Garces, Postdoctoral Fellow, Faculty of Engineering, and Eyup Demir, Ph.D. Candidate in Mechanical Engineering are tackling one of the most significant human-caused environmental catastrophes: microplastics. Through their specialized studies of advanced materials, Irina and Eyup have uncovered the dangers of microplastics and how consumption through food and air significantly impacts marine life, humans, and our environment. Fueled by their aligned values and passion for creating real change, Irina and Eyup are developing a microplastic sensing system that detects plastic particles in industrial and natural water bodies, thus launching Octo-M Technologies.
How is Octo-M innovating?
Eyup: We are developing a sensing system to detect and identify microplastics in industrial and natural water bodies. Our product consists of three subsystems, the first of which is the collection system. With this, our clients can collect high volumes of water into the system, and using the second system called the separation system, separate microplastics from organic materials. The third system is the sensor, which analyzes the water collection and determines the nature of microplastic detected; this includes size and plastic particle type.
We also offer consulting services for detecting material for material characterization, which as an example, could be helpful in literature review for non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
What inspired you to start Octo-M Technologies?
Irina: Eyup and I met during our Ph.D.’s in Mechanical Engineering, while both specializing in advanced materials, including plastics. We’d talk and bounce ideas off each other and grew to respect and trust each other’s technical opinions, realizing our values and passions were aligned.
We both had all this knowledge on specialized plastics and particles and knew how to manufacture them, and while we were in the lab, we realized we were generating a lot of waste, and we thought we might as well use this knowledge for a greater cause. We also learned how dangerous microplastics are, which motivated us to start this technology and create something exciting and challenging.
What inspired us was the global plastic pollution problem. We were part of it, and our purpose was to contribute to a solution. We wanted to contribute to something with a higher purpose, but we also wanted to be pioneers in technology. We wanted to be the first to do this, to lead the field. We felt that with Octo-M, we could bring together people, scientists, and engineers who align with our values and eventually become part of our company.
Why is sustainability so important?
Eyup: Sustainability is a complex term and is personally motivating. To me, it's protecting our ecosystem and preserving resources for future generations. But it's also important because it's the meaning of social life or economic life. Today, resources are incredibly high compared to previous years for consumption, from anything commercial, emotional, or nature related. If we cannot balance consumption and sustainability, our crisis will continue to damage humanity, our environment, wildlife, and everything.
How has the pandemic impacted plastic pollution? What do you want people to know about plastics?
Irina: Some people may not know that only a very tiny portion of plastics are recycled each year, and even when they are, they can only be recycled a finite number of times. This means that plastic eventually ends up being waste that breaks down into tiny pieces called microplastics, and it’s everywhere! In our air, and even in our water, we consume it as it makes its way up the food chain. Researchers have found that humans consume the size of one credit card of plastic per week on average! The pandemic has increased plastic use—from PPE to takeout containers, and these plastics are in our wastewater treatment plants, landfills, drainage, and more.
The problem is that these fibers become smaller and smaller until they are undetectable to the human eye. Research shows the effects on cellular structure within animals and microscopic life, but we're still unsure what happens when humans ingest it. They are even starting to find microplastics on the human placenta, which means they're already in our bloodstream, which is scary! Plastics contain many chemicals to make them manufacturable, so they should not be in our bloodstream.
What were some highlights for Octo-M?
Eyup: We’ve been working on the company since February 2021, and we incorporated it legally this past summer. That was a good milestone for us.
The second highlight is working with new partners like the Lab2Market Ocean Program from the east coast of Canada and Startup Edmonton through the Student Founder’s program. During these times, we learned how to start a business. Thanks to the work we did within the program, we were able to understand better the needs of potential customer researchers and the solutions we can provide, which provided the opportunity for us to connect with 80 potential customers in the microplastic field.
There are a lot of ups and downs in this journey, and some days we say, “this is not going to work,” and other days we feel the opposite. Irina and I were joking the other day that we simultaneously felt happy, sad, excited, and angry, and as an entrepreneur, you feel that every day, haha!
What was great about the Student Founder’s Program was that we heard similar things from other founders, so it was nice to know that we were not alone. I applaud anyone that takes that journey into entrepreneurship.
What was it like working with Startup Edmonton and the Student Founder’s Program?
Eyup: We had a few entrepreneur friends who told us about Startup Edmonton, and so we applied for the Student Founders Program and were so happy when we got accepted. It has been great sitting down with the Program Facilitator, Allan Waine, and other peers to discuss our ideas, learn how to approach and listen to people instead of focusing on selling something.
Irina: What was also exciting about the Student Founders Program was jumping into the unknown. We made this decision, and it was so nice to be in the same boat as other entrepreneurs. The community is so kind and encouraging, and it was nice to have that support.
What are you most proud of?
Irina: We are proud of the steady progress we’re making. There haven’t been huge breakthroughs, but it’s been steady. We’re putting a lot of effort into creating our network and finding great advisors and mentors. We’ve put together an advisory committee for our company and reached out to NGOs, microplastic experts, waste management facilities, toxicologists, and biologists from all over the world, including Europe, Australia, Japan, and Norway. It has been exciting to meet people who want to make a difference and participate in this project.
What’s next for Octo-M?
Eyup: Besides establishing our advisory committees, we are looking forward to bringing on new team members to help design new parts within our sampling system. In addition, we plan to secure two pilot projects with industrial collaborators and researchers in academia. We are also hoping to get involved in the 500 Global accelerator programming!
What do you love most about being an entrepreneur in Edmonton?
Irina: This city has a great support system at all levels – from university to the entrepreneur community, we’ve felt support at every step. We’ve met many other entrepreneurs in the innovation sector, and it’s such a great support system. It’s a great time to be in Alberta right now. Our province has really committed to innovation. With the new accelerators and everything, you can see that many opportunities are coming our way.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.