Microplastics are everywhere — quite literally, as study after study shows. And while we can’t do much about the tiny, toxic particles already in our oceans, waterways and bodies, we can try to slow the release of new ones. With a shiny new $10 million, Matter is a startup attempting to do so using a new type of reusable filter that catches microfibers before they can reach the sea and disintegrate.
Synthetic (i.e. plastic) clothing materials like polyester shed countless pieces when they are made, worn, washed and discarded. Durable, toxic and omnipresent, these microscopic polymer scraps are taken in by filter-feeding creatures and then work their way up the food chain, causing biological havoc all the while. And that’s just one vector for the stuff.
Adam Root, co-founder and CEO of Matter, explained that he started looking into the problem in 2017 when it was beginning to become more clear how great a danger microplastics represented.
“We’re seeing this micro-pollution break the blood brain barrier; it’s changing fertility rates; plankton are ingesting it like crazy. I was like, OK, somebody has to solve this — and I tried to find other people to work for, to be honest,” Root told TechCrunch. “But it was clear to me that the size and scale of this issue is not being thought about in the correct way.”
With a background in mechanical engineering and history at Dyson and GE, Root is familiar with the ecosystems in play. Which is why the company started out (after a £250 grant to grease the wheels) with an unlikely success last year: a Kickstarter-funded aftermarket filter for home washing machines. The Gulp, as it is called, attracted a large number of backers, showing (as is usually the real intent with crowdfunding) consumer appetite for this kind of eco-friendly appliance.
The major advance Matter has made is in a filter that catches microplastics without needing to be itself replaced, like many filters.
“We call it regenerative filtration. We get the material and stick it together, without adding any chemicals or other substances,” Root said. “Nobody’s ever done this without disposable parts.”
The collected plastic dust can then be sent back to them for reuse (there are applications in things like insulation) or, really, just thrown away. It’s a lot like the lint trap in a tumble dryer, and no one hesitates to toss a bit of fluff in the bin. A similar amount of fibers come off clothes in the washer, but right now they just go down the drain. Catching a significant proportion of it is good even if it ends up in a landfill. The Gulp was more than fully funded on Kickstarter and Matter expects to deliver it on time or even early.
But selling a rather expensive add-on to upstanding global citizens is still a “small” solution. But Root said there was no other way.
“We had to start with the D2C side because honestly, as a business I’d be dead before we got paid if we went after the big business side first,” he said. “It’s like five-year cycles there. We’re now looking into that industrial scale, wastewater treatment, textiles and so on, where we see large volumes of impact, but it’s important to hit both ends of the scale. Don’t underestimate the impact at the consumer level.”
On one end, you have large textile manufacturers that pour microplastics-contaminated water in huge quantities into our waterways. On the other, consumer washing machines that produce only a gram per wash — but with millions of machines being used regularly, it adds up to millions of kilograms very quickly.
The French government will soon require washers to include some sort of microplastics mitigation, and it’s likely similar legislation is around the corner in other countries or jurisdictions, as well. Therefore another piece of the Matter business pie is integrating directly with washers so that an aftermarket solution is unnecessary.
Although the company declined to make the pictures available (not final design, presumably), I was shown images of an industrial-scale prototype that can handle millions of liters of wastewater per day without taking up too much space or impeding outflow (no one wants a solution that causes new problems). Like the Gulp, it doesn’t rely on any disposable parts.
The company’s planet-friendly approach and traction have attracted considerable investment. Matter announced today a $10 million A round led by S2G Ventures and SOUNDWaves; the latter you may recognize as frequent TechCrunch Disrupt guest Ashton Kutcher’s venture outfit. Not one to be left out of the party, Leonardo Dicaprio’s Regeneration.VC also invested, as well as Katapult Ocean and “a small number” of strategics.
“The funding will unlock the industrial filtering part of our business,” Root said. “The majority of the money we’ll spend is on people, because the tech we’ve developed, we’re comfortable with it — now it’s about working with these massive clients. Their supply lines are just… they can produce things at costs I can only dream about. They’re like a train, they take a while to get going, but once they do, it doesn’t stop. That’s how you move the needle: you utilize these juggernauts.”
Expect to hear more about Matter’s next steps as their pilot projects bear fruit: The company is conducting tests in Turkey, Mexico, India and Sri Lanka over the next year or so, and aims to scale production to millions of filter units (inclusive of all sizes) in 2025.