Materials for the Masses, part 1

Materials for the Masses, part 1

Recently, Pangaea has been working on a number of opportunities that might not only make our world better (in terms of sustainability), but also look like they can make our lives better (in terms of quality of life). And when I say "our lives", I mean everybody's lives. In this two-part blog, I want to provide a brief overview of some of the opportunities we are following that we think can help raise the standard of living for some of the poorest people on the planet.


One of the clear differentiators between the developed and developing worlds is the presumed ability to take access to clean, fresh drinking water for granted. However, this year on the west coast, with the current drought, we are seeing that even the developed world can't necessarily make this assumption. Yuka Yoshizumi of Pangaea LP Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corp., wrote a blog about the materials opportunities in water purification membranes while she was seconded to Pangaea last year (KAITEKI And The Water Cycle), and Pangaea associate Sarah Applebaum covered the space in her 2013 blog (Material Innovation in the Water Cycle: A Deep Well of Innovation). Cleaning up water is clearly a job for materials.

Reverse osmosis, the leading incumbent technology for water purification and desalination, has been in commercial use for 40 years, but there is a move to forward osmosis. What's the difference? Principally cost, either from expensive, capital-intensive plants for reverse osmosis, or from high energy costs due to poor efficiency. Also, reverse osmosis is a commercial reality, whereas forward osmosis is an area in need of technical disruption, perhaps via a membrane that could minimize internal concentration polarization, or the development of an ideal draw solution that could optimize the system efficiency.

Water is not only used for drinking. Air conditioning is a big consumer of water, and as standards of living in the developing world improve, demand is taking off. Unfortunately, much of the developing world is located in hot climate areas that also often suffer from high humidity and a lack of fresh, clean water. Pangaea has been evaluating high efficiency air conditioning technologies that can use unclean or salt water to effectively provide cooling. This amazing trick is also enabled by breakthroughs in membrane technology.


One of the biggest consumers of water is agriculture. We've looked at exciting possibilities in greatly reducing the water requirements of crop production, such as seed coatings and soil amendments that bind water at the plant roots instead of allowing it to run off. These materials, in higher quantity, even have the potential to bind sand, with the long-term vision of making the deserts bloom. In the future, I have a hope that this may reverse the recent trend of decline in arable land.

Sensors are already being adopted to help with water management in agriculture, but there is potential for so much more. Low-energy sensors equipped with energy harvesting technology could be wirelessly networked to trigger the application of water, fertilizers, pesticides, plant growth stimulants, etc. A cheaper option, or at least more easily maintained and upgraded, would be to equip a drone with the sensors and the crop chemicals, so that a single piece of equipment could service a large area. This will require not only new sensor technologies and crop protection chemicals, but further improvements in battery chemistries, such as that being done by Pangaea portfolio company Envia. Increases in energy density will allow batteries to be smaller and lighter, which can increase the range of the drone and/or provide more room for sensors or computer hardware.

I will skip the role of biologicals in increasing crop yield as I've covered that in some previous blogs (Biopesticides: The next crop of cleantech home runs, Black Spots On The Green Revolution, Neonicotinoids: Devastating The Food Chain). Our portfolio companies Vestaron and NewLeaf Symbiotics are making incredible progress in this area.

As standards of living improve, people in developing countries are demanding a more Western diet, heavy on the animal protein. Unfortunately, the Western protein staples are also poster children for unsustainability. You may have read Purnesh's previous blog on our portfolio company Calysta (Gas to liquid (GTL) technology; disruptive change is coming!), but since then, there has been a very surprising development. Calysta is now using natural methanotroph microbes to convert natural gas to protein, which is sold into the aquaculture market, and hopefully soon, feed for livestock. This turns the old food-versus-fuel argument on its head by literally making food from fuel. In fact, at a fraction of the cost of sugar, natural gas is the cheapest carbon-based feedstock for food as well as fuels.

Of course, there are other sustainable sources of protein. Most of the world eats insects. Actually, we all do, at least unintentionally and in small amounts (yes, even you vegetarians and vegans). Yet, in North America, we squirm at the thought (even though most of us happily eat shrimp, which really doesn't seem much different to me). Even if we aren't quite ready for grasshopper smoothies, insects are part of our food chain. Pangaea has looked at a number of start-up companies that use insects to convert vegetable food waste into useful animal protein, which is sold into the feed market.

More To Come

I'll have more on how advanced materials can make our world better in part two, covering health, energy, and communication opportunities to improve the quality of life in the developing world.

General Partner, Pangaea Ventures Ltd. Keith has been making cleantech and advanced material venture investments since 2001, having managed Mitsubishi Corporation's Canadian VC activities and BASF Venture Capital America out of Silicon Valley.View Keith Gillard's profile on LinkedIn


  • Guest
    seshadri Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    Interesting read. I would like to comment on the last paragraph. Insect proteins. Yes humans need proteins. But not at the cost of insects what people in few corners of the World does. There are number of alternatives viz. plants to mushrooms to algae to feed human beings. We must invest more time, resource and money in identifying the resources to feed the masses. Three decades back, world was working on leaf proteins. Now its time to concentrate on mushrooms and plants viz. moringa, Sesbania etc. I am sure we have answers.

  • Keith Gillard
    Keith Gillard Thursday, 27 August 2015

    Hi Seshadri,

    Thanks for the comment. I understand the aversion to eating insects! However, it's not just a few corners of the world where they are eaten. Over two billion people eat insects as part of their traditional daily diet. Many scientists and conservationists have been advocating that everybody eat more of them (see this report from the UN However, insects don't need to be food directly for humans in order to be of benefit; we can use them as feed for our livestock.

    The work on leaf proteins continues, and the work on fungi has been very exciting. RNAi and other technologies hold the promise of revolution for broad acre crops, and like it or not, genetic modification still has an enormous role to play. I also see great promise in the big data analysis of genomics, whereby we may truly understand the interaction of genes and proteins with the microbiome that any organism depends upon. This will unlock the ability to feed billions more.

    I like your thinking on moringa, sesbania, etc. There are an estimated 250,000 edible plants, yet humans eat only about 150. 12 of those represent 75% of the world's food. Biodiversity in our food chain is at an all-time low, and not just among plants. 30% of all livestock breeds are at risk, with about 6 going extinct every month, according to the UN.

    Feeding the population is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity! It's going to take innovation and hard work to meet it. Thanks for your thoughts.

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