For-Profit, For Planet: Propagate Ventures + Parx Materials (re-broadcast)

This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with the CEOs of two startups that are trying in very different ways to help the planet. First, we hear from Ethan Steinberg of Propagate Ventures to learn more about how his company helps promote agroforestry efforts across the country. Then, we travel to Rotterdam and talk with Michaël Van der Jagt about his Dutch company, Parx Materials, which uses bio-mimicry to forge chemical-free, bacteria- and virus-resistant polymers, enabling the safe re-purposing of ocean waste plastic among other things.

Narrator  0:02  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Michaël Van der Jagt  0:18  I’m calling it natural, because this is the way the body is preventing bacteria. This is the way the body is having its defense mechanism. So it’s something that is not causing also bacterial resistance.

Narrator  0:36 This week on Sea Change Radio we speak with the CEOs of two startups that are trying in very different ways to help the planet. First, we hear from Ethan Steinberg of Propagate Ventures to learn more about how his company helps promote agroforestry efforts across the country. Then we traveled to Rotterdam and talk with Michaël Van der Jagt about his Dutch company Parx Materials, which uses biomimicry to forge chemical free bacteria and virus resistant polymers, enabling the safe repurposing of ocean waste plastic, among other things.

Alex Wise  1:22  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by the CEO and co-founder of Propagate Ventures, Ethan Steinberg. Ethan, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Ethan Steinberg – Thanks, Alex. Appreciate it. It’s great to be here.

Alex Wise – So why don’t you tell us what propagate ventures is all about? What is your organization’s mission?

Ethan Steinberg – Propagate is all about making agroforestry a cornerstone of agriculture. What we do is we work through our analytics and project development platform that makes it easy for investors to fund low risk agroforestry projects, while helping farmers get access to the economic insights and project development tools that they need to confidently manage agroforestry.

Alex Wise – So do you get your revenues from being kind of the middleman between investors and farmers, or who are your clients, or clients are farmers, landowners and investors, there’s another category there around effectively, like the supply chain manager at a, at a food company, for example?

Ethan Steinberg – So what we do is we work with any of those groups to help them analyze their farmland for agroforestry to really highlight what cash flows can look like, has farms transitioned to agroforestry as well as making it easier to access the product development tools, and the financing to implement and to run successful operations and maintenance. So, we essentially sell an analytics service, we sell product development, and we become a financing partner.

Alex Wise – So you mentioned agroforestry, a few times, our listeners may not know what that is, why don’t you define agroforestry, and then we’ll dive into some examples of it in action.

Ethan Steinberg – Agroforestry is the integration of fruit, nut and timber trees with agriculture in row with an existing operation. Now we tell picture this, you can imagine trees planted on a farm, where in between the rows of trees, you might have a row crop like a wheat, corn, soy, or you would have livestock. And so this is really about bringing together more diverse landscapes and using trees as a really effective tool to drive economic value and ecological value on farmland. When we think of like the history of agriculture, we think of like Europeans coming to forests and clearing those spaces to grow crops, but agroforestry is just as old as this other type of agriculture.

Alex Wise – What are some of the benefits of agroforestry?

Ethan Steinberg – Yeah, it’s a great question. And to your point. agroforestry is really an ancient technique. We’re able to pull a lot of learnings from the way indigenous communities have been able to manage land for for years and be able to apply that to modern agriculture. A lot of what we’re doing is translating some of these more ancient practices to modern society. Thinking about the way agriculture has been done in the last 50 years or so, where you’ve really got a monoculture, you know, plant planted fencer at a fence row of one crop, you know, one of the things that we like to reflect on is where you to walk through, say, a forest or really any natural landscape, it’s almost impossible for you to see just one plant the entire time. And there’s a lot of reasons for this from an ecological perspective. And one of the things that we know to be true is, the more that we can work with, with nature rather than against it, actually more profitable our systems from an agricultural perspective can be, there’s value add to things like having bats or various birds, on our farmland, to having more nutrients in the soil, to being able to sequester carbon and get that into the soil and retain those nutrients in the soil. So that all translates effectively to $1 number somewhere along the agricultural cycle, and agroforestry helps us use trees as a tool to drive that process. And to make the cash flow of our farms more lucrative by starting to work with the natural landscape, bring in some of those crops, take advantage of the vertical space, and drive new crop types that have really positive markets. I mean, we know, for example, one of the things our teams have has done is looked historically at how permanent crops like tree fruit, how that compares to a row crop, like a wheat or a soy, or a corn over a 20 year period of time. And generally, permanent crops outperform row crops. And so if that’s the case, we think there’s a really clear economic incentive to drive this forward.

Alex Wise – One of the drawbacks for a farmer is that it, it requires a longer term strategy, you may not be able to turn a profit from season to season, but in the long run, it’s much more profitable, I imagine.

Ethan Steinberg – Yeah, that’s absolutely correct. And one of the things one of the ways that we approach this, is to try and turn the challenge into an opportunity. So we work with shrub fruits, tree fruits, tree nuts, and timber. And so if you sort of think about the timeline or the continuum there, each of those different crop types, has different cash flows and has different maturity dates in terms of when they’re had their mature production level. For example, a blueberry is going to be producing blueberries much quicker than you’ll be harvesting timber, for example. And so one of the things we do is sort of blend these into a portfolio. So that as an investor gets plugged in, the distributions from these different crop types can be met.

Alex Wise – And from a sustainability standpoint, what are some of the benefits of agroforestry?

Ethan Steinberg  8:15  Yeah, absolutely. And there’s a there’s a, there’s a ton of them. One of the lovely things about trees is most people are generally have really positive interactions with trees. They’re part of beautiful pieces of art, their pages of books, I mean, you can imagine the depth at which trees are can part of our society. And so from an ecological perspective is probably part of why humans have such a unique relationship to trees. But from an ecological perspective, trees sequester carbon, trees help retain water, and soil, they help mitigate nutrient runoff on farmland, so particularly nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, which is it’s, which is one of the key issues driving the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as trees help to increase biodiversity. And so you start to put these ecological components together. And for us, and the way Propagate approaches it, these are really strong arguments and reasons, there’ll be like to call it icing on the cake for why agroforestry is so lucrative. Because there’s such a there’s such an opportunity here, in terms of profitability on farmland, and we get the ecological benefits. It really comes together nicely.

Music Break  9:59

Alex Wise  10:42  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking to Ethan Steinberg, who is the CEO and co founder of Propagate Ventures. So Ethan, why don’t you walk us through an engagement, give us an example of propagate ventures in action.

Ethan Steinberg 10:59  I can give you an example here of a sylvo-pasture system, this is trees and livestock together, we’ve got a farm, that we work with the right on the Chesapeake Bay. And they do grass fed beef. And one of the challenges they had and one of where our conversation really started, was in the really hot summer months, August, September, what happens is their cattle lose weight. And this is a problem for their business. Because in short, cattle that way more equals more dollars. And so we’ve had a conversation with them about sylvo-pasture. So what we’ve done is we’re planting just happened to be timber trees had really wide spacing. And what that does is that reduces the heat stress and the wind stress on the cattle. Now, why is that important is because when that stress is reduced, for the cattle, they actually eat more. And so there’s a little bit more shade, they’re not in an open field on a really hot day, through some shade, there’s a little bit more water retention in the soil, the grasses may taste a little bit better, because there’s more nutrient density in the soil. And so what happens is the cattle gain weight, come back to that one line I showed earlier is more weight equals more dollars. So you understand why that’s really valuable. Plus, we get all the benefits of sequestering carbon, we get the benefits of water retention. And I mentioned these guys are right on the Chesapeake Bay. And so they’re aware that there’s potentially nutrient runoff from their farm into the Chesapeake. And this helps mitigate that. So there’s some of these components that come together, there’s a direct economic incentive for this farm. And there’s a clear win around the ecosystem services. So it really comes together nicely. As an example, now happy to give you another example, would be a farm up in New York that we work with. What we’ve done here is planting fruits and nuts, and the really good stuff. So apples are part of the discussion. But really what we’re looking at is black currents and chestnuts. And we’ve got the landowner will say his name’s Robert, know Robert and propagate worked together to analyze his his farm and get come to an understanding of how this could be more profitable for him how he could make more money on that farm. Through making some investments. We worked through with him and came to a conclusion that an alley cropping system so we’ve got rows of trees, and in between the rows of trees, we’re actually growing shrub fruits, these are the black currents and blueberries, and whatnot that I had mentioned. So over the course of 20 years, we’re gonna have a very profitable farm that is producing fruits and nuts. And that operates in an agroforestry system and will likely outperform from a dollars perspective, some of the neighbors in the area that might only be doing something like hay or wheat, and And what we’ll find out more as that happens.

Alex Wise – He’s the co-founder and CEO of Propagate Ventures Ethan Steinberg. Ethan, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Ethan Steinberg – Appreciate it. Thanks, Alex.

Alex Wise  14:49  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Michaël Van der Jagt. He is the CEO of Parx Materials. Michael, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Michaël Van der Jagt  – Hi, thanks – thanks for having me.

Alex Wise 15:00 So you are based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands? Correct? And the company is as well, why don’t you explain the innovation that Parx Materials has developed and what you have planned for the company.

Michaël Van der Jagt  – What we have developed is a technology that is derived from biomimicry. And we’ve developed a method to make plastics or polymers, anti microbial, and only recently confirmed also antiviral by making use of a body’s own trace element. So we’re using the trace elemental think that is vital for the human immune system. It’s something that you and me need in, in our diet on a daily basis to stay healthy. And it’s the element that is well roughly everywhere in your body, but also present in your skin, where it’s responsible as one component to fight off bacteria and viruses. So it’s a body’s own trace element, something that humans need to stay healthy, but it’s also something that is helping plants to grow. It’s something that you can find in baby formula and something present in fertilizer, for example. So why don’t you explain a little bit more in detail how the biofilm works, and what products you can add here, your biofilm to, ya know, what we are doing is we are we are integrating this trace element into the plastic. And that’s done in the manufacturing process. So, we are providing a part of the raw material that’s being used to produce an end product with or an article with, and by integrating the element we are preventing the adhesion and we are preventing the adhesion of bacteria, we are preventing the adhesion of viruses. And what we see is that by preventing the adhesion of the bacteria, you are preventing proliferation of the bacteria and consequently you are also preventing this formation of biofilm. So, traditional antimicrobial technologies are killing bacteria. And our approach is much different, we are only preventing the adhesion of these bacteria, which means you are preventing this complete sequence of events that normally happened with bacteria attached to the surface that allows them to take up nutrients that allows them to proliferate. And when bacteria reach a specific cause them a specific number of bacteria altogether, they generate something like biofilm. And there’s a phenomenon called quorum sensing. bacteria can communicate with each other. And when they recognize they have a specific quantity of bacteria altogether, they generate something so they can generate a biofilm formation. And then growth usually turns out to be exponential. So what we’ve done is really take this really, really first step of the bacteria life cycle where they normally want to attach to be able to proliferate without them being able to attach we are preventing the rest of this sequence that normally happens.

Music Break  18:21

Alex Wise  19:20  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Michaël Van der Jagt, he is the CEO of Parx Materials based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Who are your customers?

Michaël Van der Jagt  – So our clients are producing products and they and they’re producing products out of plastic. And we recently were able to announce some like fast food trays and these trays are made out of a material or an ocean waste material. So these trays used to be fishing nets and ropes to that were used in the fishing industry. So taking all these ropes they have generated to these ropes to become, you know, a reusable plastic. And we created a fast food tray. Out of this, let’s say ocean waste type of plastic, including our technology. So really giving the material a second a second life,

Alex Wise – And explain where the ocean waste came from and who you partnered with to make this a reality.

Michaël Van der Jagt  – So these fast food trays are made out of the ocean waste materials. That is a technology that is coming from, from Norway, where they have a good structured, let’s say recycling channel for specifically those materials. So I mean, recycling materials can be quite, can be quite a headache, and can be quite difficult with all the different types of plastics that are out there. So taking just these ropes and these nets used for this particular industry, makes it a very clear and let’s say clean stream. So taking these materials, turning it into a reusable plastic. And then in this case, our partner in Norway has been able to make these trays out of the material, combining it with our technology, making truly a unique product giving, you know, a good example of a second life to this plastic material. And not considering it, considering it as a waste, but using it to create another new product. And then adding our technology we create even more added value to something pretty simple, like fast food tray. But in these times with pandemic and outbreaks, you’ve got to think of it I mean, there’s a lot of people touching these trays, cleaning is not always perfectly done. So having a technology inside such a product is you know, is a great benefit. And combining it with something that has been used before that had a life before it became a tray, I think is a really good example of how you should be dealing with plastics. And because you know it can be can be a great material, but you have to be smart in the way that you’re using it. And in this example, where you have a very distinguished stream of material, you can create all sorts of products.

Alex Wise – You mentioned biomimicry, Michael. Explain what that means exactly and how it works.

Michaël Van der Jagt  – Yes, the technology is is derived or inspired, let’s say by biomimicry or by nature, it’s pretty well known how important the trace elements of zinc is for the body. I mean, you have it in your skin, but you have it in your bones in your hairs in your blood. In synovial liquid, it’s really everywhere in the body. And it’s vital for the immune system. A good example on the you know, what zinc is doing for the body is for example, acne. If you have acne, you’ll get pimples in your face, you know, that is usually caused or due to the fact that you have zinc deficit in your skin, you’re seeing your skin defense mechanism is lacking. And the body is a complex system. Because if you if you go to the doctor with acne, the doctor will most likely tell you to change your diet. And this is because you can take zinc tablets, but just taking the zinc tablets, having this trace element is not enough because it needs you need to have a good uptake by your body as well. So you need to have vitamin D, for example. But there are other vitamins and minerals that you need to have a good uptake of this of this trace element. So therefore the advice is always to change your diet because then you will have different spectrum of vitamins and minerals, and to have more zinc in your in your skin and then have a better skin condition with no acne or no pimples or, or out outbursts like that. So the way it works for the skin was our inspiration. And we said, you know, it’s so vital for the human immune system. What if we take this element and we try to incorporate it into a polymer to create or simulate this type of defense mechanism? So it’s something that we started off with, I think in 2010 and it took us quite a long time. I mean, we got proof of concept quite early, but getting it right and getting it to a high capability was quite a difficult task. So this has been the inspiration. And we’ve been trying to simulate how the skin works. And this is what we’ve been incorporating into the plastic. So using the same type of element, and getting it nicely in the perfect way into the plastic material to create this more or less natural type of defense mechanism against bacteria. And I’m calling it natural, because you know, this is the way the body is preventing bacteria. This is the way the body is having its defense mechanism. So it’s something that is not causing also bacterial resistance.

Alex Wise – So can you give us kind of a snapshot of the competitive landscape and how your product parts materials compares to other microbial solutions and on the marketplace?

Michaël Van der Jagt  – Yes, we are truly different. I mean, roughly all of the anti microbial solutions out there in the market today are if you take a good look at all of them, they’re roughly all of them are toxic. So they are using a toxic element, which is incorporated into the plastic, and it is anti microbial because some of this toxic element is slowly migrating out of the plastic to kill the bacteria. But that means when it’s coming out, it means it can end up end up anywhere, it can end up on your desk, on your coffee on your lunch sandwich, and then in the end ending up in your body as well. So the most well known solution, I think in the market is silver, you know, and they say all it’s been used since ages. But integrating silver into the plastic, which is the most common solution. Now use today means you are deteriorating the recyclability of the product because you’re adding a heavy metal to the material which more or less destroys recyclability, because you don’t want to have this in your sight recycling stream. But it’s migrating out silver ions. And the silver ions are Yes, they’re very effective against bacteria, but they end up everywhere.And I mean, there are studies done that the sports apparel, for example, that have anti odour technology, you know, they are fitted with silver, silver ions are killing the odor causing bacteria, but these silver ions are are washed out during your washing cycles. So that means, you know, a truckload of silver ions are going down the sewage stream, ending up in wastewater treatment plants where they are not able to filter out these silver ion elements. So it’s ending up in the oceans. So you know, I really think that using a system derived from nature or derive from how nature has come to to deal with things to deal with germs is a much better as a much more holistic solution than any of these toxins that are out there.

Alex Wise – He’s the CEO of Parx Materials, Michaël Van der Jagt. Michael, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Michaël Van der Jagt  – Thanks for having me.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Maceo Parker, Jeff Buckley and Tim Buckley. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.