Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao, founders of Novoloop, do not want you to see their TED Talk from 2013. On stage in Long Beach, Ca., the then-teenagers are explaining how their discovery of plasticizer-eating bacteria in British Columbia’s Fraser River won them Canada’s Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge.
At one point Miranda, trying to be subtle (not her strength), whispers to Jeanny to change slides. Jeanny, trying to remember her lines, is struggling to multitask. “The talk was not very good,” says Miranda. “All things considered, we had zero coaching in public speaking and really high-pitched voices.”
Nine years later, in June 2022, Novoloop announced a $21 million Series A—beyond anything Miranda and Jeanny expected when they joined SOSV’s IndieBio startup development program in 2015.
They had figured out how to turn trash bags, bubble wrap and shampoo bottles into high-performance plastics—Thermoplastic Polyurethane, or TPU—for sportswear, cars and electronics. Polyethylene is the world’s most widely used plastic, yet only 9 percent is recycled, and virtually none is upcycled. Thanks to Novoloop, there will be less plastic waste in landfills or oceans, fewer carbon emissions to produce plastics, and far less crude oil going to petrochemical plants.
Born in Tsingtao, China, Miranda moved to Vancouver, Canada at age five. Her father, a software engineer, founded a website resembling Craigslist, but it didn’t catch on. He lacked a cofounder who liked talking to people, says Miranda.
Jeanny was born in Sichuan, China and raised in Liaoning, a province bordering North Korea. She was captivated by environmental ads about conserving water and electricity. She was the kid who reminded everyone to turn off the lights. Her family emigrated to Vancouver when she was 11.
Both grew up in an expat community that was capitalizing on China’s transition to capitalism. When family and friends gathered, all the talk was about business.
Jeanny and Miranda met in ninth grade at Magee Secondary School, where they were taking an exam to get into the “enriched” math class. Jeanny was the new kid. Miranda, a wizened veteran of eighth-grade enriched math, tried to advise her fellow émigré.
“You were so nervous,” says Miranda.
“Yes, but I ended up doing a lot better than you,” Jeanny says.
“You know, I’m a little bit more alpha and outspoken than Jeanny,” says Miranda. “But Jeanny is a lot more intelligent in many ways. She will patiently hear me out and then say, ‘That won’t work because blah blah blah,’ and then I say, ‘Okay, you’re right. Just do it.’”
“Miranda is underselling herself,” says Jeanny. “She’s one of the smartest people I know. She does come across impulsive sometimes, which is where I come in and try to mediate. But she’s very creative and definitely the visionary for this company.”
No one at the Magee Secondary School wanted to be president of the Recycling Club. Miranda and Jeanny ran unopposed. The club had $10,000 in cash from ten years of returning bottles minus splurging on pizza. Miranda and Jeanny rebranded it the Environment Club, built a community garden, and launched a composting operation. They went to Youth Environmental Boot Camp—yes, that exists—the following summer, in 2012.
On a camp trip to the Vancouver South Waste Transfer Station, they saw where trash and recyclables are collected. They remember weird smells, oozing green liquids, and heaps of plastic, most of which went to landfills, according to the guide.
“Our accelerators are crucibles where you get reality, reality, and reality. And a lot of love.”Bill Liao, General Partner, SOSV
Having isolated 14 bacteria which convert plasticizers (a plastic additive) into proteins, they applied to the Sanofi competition. They won the competition and ended up on the TED stage.
Two years later Bill Liao, SOSV General Partner, invited their company (at the time called BioCellection) to join SOSV’S IndieBio startup development program in Cork, Ireland.
They could have gone different directions with their plasticizer-eating bacteria. Bill pushed for commercialization. “Commerce,” says Bill, “is the most powerful tool ever created. Engines of commerce are the tool that has destroyed the planet.” He likens commerce to a knife: You can stab a person, or you can carve art.
“Seeing all their passion, all their brilliance, all their commitment, it seemed to me the most powerful tool they could wield would be a commercial one,” he says.
At IndieBio, Miranda and Jeanny had a professional lab where they could convert their Fraser River research into a business. “Our accelerators are crucibles where you get reality, reality, and reality,” says Bill, “and a lot of love.” The original business plan for Novoloop was to make fish feed from plastic-eating bacteria. There was just one problem, and they didn’t recognize it yet.
After IndiBio, says Jeanny, “We couldn’t stand the idea of staying in school any longer.” It was 2016, their senior year of college, and Novoloop was all-consuming. Jeanny, a student at the University of Toronto, traveled to the University of Pennsylvania to work on the business with Miranda. Money was scarce. “I was traveling to Philadelphia like, a lot, and was sleeping on her couch,” Jeanny says. “Sometimes we’d take turns, and I slept on her bed, and she slept on the couch.”
“We couldn’t stand the idea of staying in school any longer.”Jeanny Yao, COO, Novoloop
Miranda designed her senior project in such a way that she scored access to a teaching lab after hours for chemical engineering. Because she was paying her own money to use the lab for independent study, the university couldn’t claim any intellectual property she developed while working there.
Miranda and Jeanny became the first undergrads to win the Wharton Business Plan Competition—and four other awards. They graduated with $150,000 in grants and $600,000 in venture funding from Wharton alumni.
“We cleaned up,” says Miranda, no pun intended. Spared from graduate school (their plan B), they moved to Silicon Valley to continue building Novoloop.
“If not for Bill and SOSV, we wouldn’t have founded a company, period,” says Miranda. “The fact that he took a chance on us—and gave us the initial $50,000 investment—is the reason that the two of us decided to work together and come back to this issue that we care so much about.”
Novoloop had banked everything on the fish feed business. However, “People don’t really like putting these two problems together,” says Miranda. “They don’t really want to feed their fish bacteria that ate plastics.”
Novoloop pivoted and developed Oistre™ (pronounced OYST-rah), the first virgin-quality thermoplastic polyurethane upcycled from polyethylene.
The pivot, the $21 million Series A, and a new partnership with Bemis Associates, a company that makes materials for high-performance outerwear, signal that Novoloop has achieved product-market fit. Novoloop plans to produce multiple products derived from upcycled plastics and longer term sees itself as a materials platform and global supplier for manufacturers seeking upcycled material with virgin quality.
More like siblings than co-founders, Jeanny and Miranda still talk on the phone for hours daily, both preferring to think out loud. They hang together on the weekends, working in Miranda’s garden. And they’re both married to midwestern men who, as Miranda puts it, are “computer guys.”
By Richard Ellis
Photos by Mark Madeo