Dispersa Seeks to Transform Clean Tech with Sustainable Biosurfactants

Episode 29 Dispersa Seeks to Transform Clean Tech with Sustainable Biosurfactants

Chemical surfactants, ubiquitous in our everyday lives, serve as critical ingredients in an array of consumer products, ranging from cleaning agents, personal care products to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. These compounds enable the effective dispersion of substances and are vital to enhancing the properties of the products we use today. Over time, this has come at a steep cost to the environment and human health.

Derived primarily from palm and petroleum sources, the conventional surfactants have contributed to depletion of natural resources and the mounting concerns over the downstream impact of toxic chemical agents on the individual well-being as well as the adverse effects to our environmental ecosystems.

The global surfactants market was valued at $41.3 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $58.5 billion by 2027, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.3% during the forecast period from 2020 to 2027.

Despite this surge in demand, the market faces its own challenges including stringent government regulations on synthetic or petrochemical-based surfactants.

This has led to a shift towards bio-based and renewable surfactants. One company, Dispersa, emerges as a beacon of change, transforming food waste into eco-friendly biosurfactants. Recently, Dispersa closed $3 million in funding, led by Invest Nova Scotia, and included the participation of the Fonds Économie Circulaire (Circular Economy Fund), Fondaction, Dragonfly Ventures, Good & Well, and BoxOne Ventures.

I met with Nivatha Balendra, Founder and CEO of Dispersa and with Olga Cruz, Associate of Good & Well at Collision. We examined Balendra’s personal journey, the imperative shift towards more sustainable solutions in the chemical industry and the need for more impactful innovation in clean tech.

Transcript

Hessie Jones

Hi, everyone. Welcome back to Collision. My name is Hessie Jones, and this is another edition of tech Uncensored today. I’m happy to welcome the both Nivatha Balendra who is the founder of Dispersa, as well as Olga Cruz, who is an associate of Good & Well the investment company that actually invested in Dispersa. So today we’re talking to Nivatha because she has some exciting news about her company. And we’re going to get into some technical stuff because it’s all about clean tech at this moment. So, let’s get started. So, Nivatha, you created a new type of surfactant that’s more waste derived and from a clean tech perspective, tell us more about why you pursue this type of innovation?

 

Nivatha Balendra

Oh, thanks for having me and Olga as well, Hessie. So, at Dispersa that’s exactly what we do. We transform food waste into these ingredients called biosurfactants, which are essentially soap. Surfactants are one of the most crucial ingredients that you can find in consumer products that we use day in and day out, but they contain palm and petroleum sources. And so, what we’re trying to do differently is how could we create the very same building blocks because we still need them, and we still need the products that contain them but how can we do that without the environmental impact? And that’s really where we turn to food waste. And so, we’re developing this process that essentially contains microbes that munch on these food waste particles that otherwise would go to landfill, and then that food waste is an upcycled into this natural ingredient called a biosurfactant that is then sold as an ingredient.

 

Hessie Jones

So, tell me about the actual problems that we have with current surfactants in the market.

 

Nivatha Balendra

So, like most chemicals, surfactants are also derived from palm and petroleum sources that heavily rely on fossil fuels and actual resources. But the thing is that chemicals aren’t bad. Chemicals are very necessary and vital to our everyday lives. I mean, everything that we use is made of chemicals, and we’ll still, as a society, continue to need that. But what we could change the discourse on how we produce those very same ingredients, and that’s what we’re trying to do is at dispersa. So, by converting food waste, we’re not only changing this discourse towards building the very same building blocks of surfactants from non-palm and non-petroleum bases, but we’re also making sure that the future of the chemical industry might be a bit more circular and upcycling waste that is massive challenge right now in terms of being able to deal with the mounting volumes of food ways that we have, especially not only in Canada but globally.

Hessie Jones

So I want to go back a little bit because this started, I guess the impetus for it started when you were 17 years old. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?

 

Nivatha Balendra

Yeah, it’s been a long time. So, at 17, this is back in 2013, there was a devastating train crash in a rural town called and after hearing about this oil spill, it really intrigued me to learn more about what oil spills were and specifically how they were cleaned up. And at that time in 2013, there weren’t many environmentally friendly solutions to treating contaminated sites, which I found interesting, especially in the sense of their contaminated sites, and we want to treat them in a way that is as less impactful as possible and to remediate the site to its original environment, so I started learning more about microbes, specifically ones that produce biosurfactants and what was really motivating at that time was learning more about this new field of science. The fact that you can’t even see these microbes, but they’re producing this natural ingredient that can have a huge impact in our everyday lives, as consumers, is really what motivated me to push it forward. So that really came out of the science fair. And then that coupled with my own personal experience as a cancer survivor really cemented the motivation to develop something natural, non-toxic and safe for consumer use, so linking it back to the science fair and bringing in my own personal experience is really what shaped dispersa into what we’re doing right now, which is not only building something that’s based on a cool technology, but building something that’s truly going to be impactful for people’s lives.

 

Hessie Jones

OK, so you mentioned something there. You’re a cancer survivor. You’re 27 years young and you also you had told me that your mom had also gone through something similar. So, tell us a bit about your journey when you were, you were still building the company and then you found out that you were afflicted with lymphoma. And what were you going through at that time as you were building the company and as your mother was going through what she was going through?

 

Nivatha Balendra

So, it was definitely a challenging time and so just to situate us timeline wise, this was before Dispersa even popped into my head or the idea of wanting to create a business came into the picture. I launched Dispersa 2019 and when my mom and I were going through cancer was around 2015 and so by that time my mom was already going through and fighting cancer, and then I was diagnosed in 2015. It was a challenging time and I think at that time, by then I had already started learning more and advanced on my research having to do with Biosurfactants, so having to look at it from the other end of the safety aspect of it definitely resonated with me, but also from a personal motivation sense. I mean we only have one life and I think at the end of the day it’s how we can make an impactful difference in our short time here on Earth and how we can do that in the way that we know best and for me that’s using science. I love science, it might sound like a nerd saying that. But I think it’s just kind of connecting the dots for me made sense at the time and you know I made a promise to myself which was, you know, if I were to make it out, which I’m very grateful, for the second chance of life is to spend it doing what I love, which is Dispersa, and so that’s essentially how it came to be.

 

Hessie Jones

Thank you. So, I’m going to switch a little bit to the news, the most recent news that you have raised 3 million in financing and one of the companies that actually had invested in you was Good and Well.  So, Olga, tell me about your experience and not only, I guess, learning about the product, but what was ultimately the reason why you had decided to go forward with supporting Nivatha?

 

Olga Cruz

So about one year ago we met, I had heard a little bit about Dispersa and one of the things that I heard was that they were replacing palm oil and something that in the past I was able to see like just working directly and that I felt like, OK, there’s something seriously wrong about this. So, I understood a little bit about the market and then we were able to chat more about what they were doing well. Yes, I had the market part, but at the same time I was able to see just how bold and courageous the team was. And that’s really what we are after at Good & Well. companies that are bold, that are very driven but also humble and that are on a mission to create a thriving economy that is also sustainable and that can inspire other investors, consumers and here you have the perfect mix. You have a founder that is just so resilient that you can tell just by the way how she was sharing about what motivated her to get into the field, how this is not like just one random project. This is not just being an entrepreneur for the sake of being an entrepreneur, which is something really common these days, but it’s about changing how things work in this world. It’s a systemic change. The start to the level of the consumers that goes across so many institutional, so many companies and this company at every point can create that change. But at the same time, they’re just so humble and so grounded, and then, you know, OK, this is a great team that we can work on. With plus, it’s always like fun. You know, to chat with them, to think about new ideas. I’m really proud that we got to work with them.

 

Hessie Jones

Thank you. So I have one last question. We’re running it a little bit out of time. So I want to ask you as an investor. What does the landscape look like for these types of companies to hit their horizon and actually attract investors like you? Understanding there’s so many problems in this world that we need to face and yet there are investors that are still looking for unicorns.

 

Olga Cruz

Yes, that’s a really interesting question. I think that one is being realistic about what’s happening right now and there’s already a big demand for companies that want to make these products. So, for example, in the case of Dispersa there are companies that have already committed to net zero by 2030, and they need to find a solution. So, I would say that I’m hopeful that more entrepreneurs will see this as an opportunity to create new products, new services that can solve those challenges. As you said, the world is full of challenges right now, but I think that younger generations are now more conscious about what’s going on, and they know that they will have to do something about it. So, I think that we are seeing more companies that are creating these impactful solutions and at the same time, we’re hoping that more investors would be willing to join us.

 

Hessie Jones

Yeah, what’s going to happen to this world? Well, I thank both of you for joining me today. And I think it’s because of organizations like yours and entrepreneurs like yours that I have a feeling that, you know, there’s hope for our future. So, thank you for joining me. Thank you.

Host Information
Hessie Jones

Hessie Jones is an Author, Strategist, Investor and Data Privacy Practitioner, advocating for human-centred AI, education and the ethical distribution of AI in this era of transformation. 

She currently serves as the Innovations Manager at Altitude Accelerator. She provides the necessary support for Altitude Accelerator’s programs including Incubator and Investor Readiness. She will be the liaison among key stakeholders to provide operational support and ultimately drive founder success. 

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