MicroGREEN employs 54 in Washington State

MicroGREEN CupsBy Eran Moore Rea

C4C Impact Investigations ask: where do UW start-ups go when they leave UW? Our start-ups create economic, social, and environmental impact in Washington state. Let’s check back in with some of our early start-ups—now established companies—and investigate their influence and effect.

MicroGREEN wants to disrupt the single-use, disposable cup industry.

Dr. Krishna Nadella co-founded MicroGREEN as a UW graduate student in Dr. Vipin Kumar’s lab. The UW C4C led MicroGREEN through commercialization in 2002. Nadella and Greg Branch, another of Kumar’s grad students, used their UW technology to create truly sustainable plastic cups—created from recycled materials that can be recycled again as #1 plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) materials.

Now, the company has grown into a 54-person operation in 40,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space in Arlington, Wash., employing 28 people in manufacturing, 2 in marketing, 4 in business development, 16 in engineering and technology development, and 4 in administrative management.

Five of the technological employees have degrees from the UW. Two went to Washington State University, and the company currently provides internships for students from Western Washington University.

Nadella said he expects MicroGREEN’s headquarters to stay in Washington—even as the company adds more manufacturing plants across the country.

Single-use “to go” cups make up an $8 billion/year market in the U.S., with another $16 billion annually worldwide.

Creating an eco-friendly cup for hot drinks

Recyclable cups are not as common as you may think. Hot beverages—coffee and tea drinks—are rarely served in recyclable cups.

Polystyrene Styrofoam ® cups fall apart too quickly in recycling facilities and become litter. Since single- and double-walled paper cups are usually coated in plastic for hot beverages, they often can’t be recycled.

While some paper cups for hot drinks are lined with recyclable plastic, most recycling facilities can’t process them since they contain two different materials in the same product.

Recyclable, PET plastic is rarely used for hot beverage cups because the walls of the cup would heat up too quickly, burning customers’ hands. Also, PET plastic warps at high temperatures.

But MicroGREEN’s cups for hot beverages use their patented Ad-air technology to capture CO2 bubbles in the plastic, rendering the cup’s walls less dense. These “air bubbles” allow the plastic to maintain its integrity at high temperatures and provide insulation for hot drinks. MicroGREEN’s cups, from the company’s In-Cycle ® brand, are BPA-free.

Today, MicroGREEN has the only PET plastic single-use cups on the market.

During summer 2012, MicroGREEN’s hot beverage cups went through an eight-week trial at Costco. Now, several international airlines have placed orders for MicroGREEN coffee cups.

Affordable pricing for cold drink cups

MicroGREEN’s recyclable plastic cups for cold drinks—a competitor for Costco’s red plastic cups—are now for sale on Amazon.com and recent customers include the Michigan-based minor league baseball team Great Lakes Loons and the Angel of the Winds casino in Arlington, Wash.

The cups are affordable, costing almost exactly the same price as other plastic single-use cups.

Currently, a package of 30 18-ounce MicroGREEN cups for cold drinks costs about $5.79 on Amazon.com. That’s 19 cents per cup.

In comparison, a package of 50 16-ounce red SOLO ® cups go for about $9.92 on Amazon.com, the same price per unit as MicroGREEN—19 cents per cup.

Future job creation

MicroGREEN plans to continue creating domestic engineering and manufacturing jobs.

“From a founder perspective, we always wanted to be a manufacturing company,” Nadella said.

The company spent a few years looking at sub-licensing abroad, but eventually decided to go into manufacturing themselves. Nadella said that with increasing energy costs and wages, it doesn’t make economic sense to outsource in the plastic packaging industry.

“Arlington makes a great base for manufacturing work, thanks to Boeing’s many years of operation north of Seattle,” he said.

MicroGREEN funds UW students

The company would like to grow its technical team and create a technical center close to UW. Right now, MicroGREEN’s research and development is very connected to UW; Nadella sub-contracts out to his former advisor, Dr. Vipin Kumar, and his lab at UW, where graduate students research technology and MicroGREEN pays for a select number of students’ tuition and stipends.

“We have to invest in research and development to stay ahead of the game,” Nadella said. “We hope that the students we fund at the UW will end up as engineers at our company.”

MicroGREEN has already contributed $400,000 to support student research in several other UW departments, and the company plans to spend about $300,000 more towards student research over the next 18 months.

Nadella said this allows graduate students to apply their degrees in a very relevant way immediately after graduation.

“There are very few people in the world who have the opportunity to research something in school and then do that in their jobs right way. I think I could count on one hand the number of people I’ve known who’ve gotten to do that,” he said.

What’s next for MicroGREEN?

The company is looking at possible exports to international airlines, as well as quick service food companies in the Middle East.

“There are so many places to go. Quick service places like Taco Bell or Panda Express, Cup of Soup brands, the airline industry…we’re bringing in some revenue right now that enables us to keep building a brand of cups,” Nadella said, adding that the company’s full potential economic impact will start showing in the next year.

“In a few months, we could easily be shipping out a truck load of products every other day,” he said.