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The venture using microbes to turn e-waste into precious metals

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16 December 2020

Kiwi start-up Mint Innovation has just raised $20 million to go global – funds that will allow them to build their first commercial biorefineries for extracting precious metals from electronic waste (e-waste). Leading their research and development is University of Auckland alumnus Robert Staniland, who completed his Postgraduate Certificate of Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship through the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2019.

Mint Innovation is an urban mining company that has developed a novel bio-technological solution allowing them to use inexpensive chemicals and naturally sourced microbes to extract and recover precious metals such as gold, palladium, and copper from common forms of waste produced by modern society. Their initial focus has been on recovering these valuable metals from electronic waste, a growing problem worldwide with 54 million tons of e-waste generated each year.

“This is despite certain kinds of electronic waste containing precious metals at concentrations much higher than ore dug out of the earth,” says Robert. “For example, printed circuit boards contain between 100 to 400 grams of gold per tonne, significantly more than gold ore which typically contains below 10 grams of gold per ton. Mint Innovation aims to use its technology to divert waste into the circular economy and reduce our dependence on mining.” 

Robert sees the switch to circular economies as crucial to a more sustainable society. “There needs to be a shift in how we design processes to deal with our consumption such that we can continue to live the lifestyles we all want to. Broadly, I would like to see this concept become mainstream and a part of decision-making at every level – personal, corporate, and government.”

The current technology used to recycle e-waste, known as smelting, is an energy intensive process that needs to operate non-stop at huge scale to be efficient. “If you are an e-waste aggregator who sells to smelters, the e-waste has to be shipped to the smelter and there is a wait until it is processed before you see a return. Small localised refineries like Mint’s will offer a more convenient option with lower shipping costs and quicker return times, speeding up cash flow for the e-waste aggregator. This process minimises the carbon intensity of recycling e-waste as it not only reduces  logistics, but also once it arrives, Mint’s biotechnology is less energy intensive,” explains Robert.

While Covid-19 slowed Mint’s plans to expand beyond New Zealand, it also allowed the team opportunity to “step out of the lab”, reflect on their work, refocus their efforts, and be more precise in their deployment strategy. Part of Mint’s vision is to have a biorefinery in every major city around the world, starting with the UK and Australia. Both countries have implemented strong product stewardship regulations around electronic waste and have large enough populations to generate the quantities of the printed circuit board feedstock required for Mint’s process. Australia’s proximity in light of Covid travel restrictions is also particularly appealing,” says Robert. 

Mint Innovation is the brainchild of Dr Will Barker and Mat Rowe, two former employees of carbon recycling technology company LanzaTech. Mat was panning for gold in Arrowtown when he realised that gold was the perfect product to recover from waste. Will did some digging into the idea, saw its potential, and brought in biotechnologist Dr Oliver Crush who proved that the initial science held up. Robert joined the team two years later as a research scientist. “It was here that I was exposed to a lot of discussion around these concepts. They are an area where my practical skills as a chemist could be put to good use in a manner that aligns with my personal values.”

“When I was looking for jobs after finishing my PhD I felt as though I was ultra specialised in a very competitive niche area of research,” says Robert. So, he was inspired to pursue further education in innovation and entrepreneurship as a way to broaden his skills and open up a wider range of opportunities. He was also keen to learn more about the entrepreneurial ecosystem after his role at Mint exposed him to a completely different scientific environment than what he had experienced in academia.

Robert says the skills he learnt studying innovation and entrepreneurship have been incredibly valuable. “They allow me to translate Mint’s science to other disciplines. For example, I am now far more comfortable communicating with business leaders. People involved with business and science tend to speak very different languages; having an understanding of both allows me to communicate more effectively and to understand the purpose of Mint’s R&D work in a broader context,” says Robert.

Robert believes that, in most regards, innovation and entrepreneurship and science are very similar. “Keep asking basic questions until you get a response you understand the logic behind. If you have an idea, ask people for their opinion. Talk to people with business experience who are not scientists. They will consider the proposition in a completely different light from you. And most importantly, listen to what they suggest with an open mind.”

The University’s postgraduate programmes in Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship have been replaced with the Master of Business Development which can be studied online.

Nicholas Bing
Nicholas Bing

social media

16 December 2020

Kiwi start-up Mint Innovation has just raised $20 million to go global – funds that will allow them to build their first commercial biorefineries for extracting precious metals from electronic waste (e-waste). Leading their research and development is University of Auckland alumnus Robert Staniland, who completed his Postgraduate Certificate of Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship through the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2019.

Mint Innovation is an urban mining company that has developed a novel bio-technological solution allowing them to use inexpensive chemicals and naturally sourced microbes to extract and recover precious metals such as gold, palladium, and copper from common forms of waste produced by modern society. Their initial focus has been on recovering these valuable metals from electronic waste, a growing problem worldwide with 54 million tons of e-waste generated each year.

“This is despite certain kinds of electronic waste containing precious metals at concentrations much higher than ore dug out of the earth,” says Robert. “For example, printed circuit boards contain between 100 to 400 grams of gold per tonne, significantly more than gold ore which typically contains below 10 grams of gold per ton. Mint Innovation aims to use its technology to divert waste into the circular economy and reduce our dependence on mining.” 

Robert sees the switch to circular economies as crucial to a more sustainable society. “There needs to be a shift in how we design processes to deal with our consumption such that we can continue to live the lifestyles we all want to. Broadly, I would like to see this concept become mainstream and a part of decision-making at every level – personal, corporate, and government.”

The current technology used to recycle e-waste, known as smelting, is an energy intensive process that needs to operate non-stop at huge scale to be efficient. “If you are an e-waste aggregator who sells to smelters, the e-waste has to be shipped to the smelter and there is a wait until it is processed before you see a return. Small localised refineries like Mint’s will offer a more convenient option with lower shipping costs and quicker return times, speeding up cash flow for the e-waste aggregator. This process minimises the carbon intensity of recycling e-waste as it not only reduces  logistics, but also once it arrives, Mint’s biotechnology is less energy intensive,” explains Robert.

While Covid-19 slowed Mint’s plans to expand beyond New Zealand, it also allowed the team opportunity to “step out of the lab”, reflect on their work, refocus their efforts, and be more precise in their deployment strategy. Part of Mint’s vision is to have a biorefinery in every major city around the world, starting with the UK and Australia. Both countries have implemented strong product stewardship regulations around electronic waste and have large enough populations to generate the quantities of the printed circuit board feedstock required for Mint’s process. Australia’s proximity in light of Covid travel restrictions is also particularly appealing,” says Robert. 

Mint Innovation is the brainchild of Dr Will Barker and Mat Rowe, two former employees of carbon recycling technology company LanzaTech. Mat was panning for gold in Arrowtown when he realised that gold was the perfect product to recover from waste. Will did some digging into the idea, saw its potential, and brought in biotechnologist Dr Oliver Crush who proved that the initial science held up. Robert joined the team two years later as a research scientist. “It was here that I was exposed to a lot of discussion around these concepts. They are an area where my practical skills as a chemist could be put to good use in a manner that aligns with my personal values.”

“When I was looking for jobs after finishing my PhD I felt as though I was ultra specialised in a very competitive niche area of research,” says Robert. So, he was inspired to pursue further education in innovation and entrepreneurship as a way to broaden his skills and open up a wider range of opportunities. He was also keen to learn more about the entrepreneurial ecosystem after his role at Mint exposed him to a completely different scientific environment than what he had experienced in academia.

Robert says the skills he learnt studying innovation and entrepreneurship have been incredibly valuable. “They allow me to translate Mint’s science to other disciplines. For example, I am now far more comfortable communicating with business leaders. People involved with business and science tend to speak very different languages; having an understanding of both allows me to communicate more effectively and to understand the purpose of Mint’s R&D work in a broader context,” says Robert.

Robert believes that, in most regards, innovation and entrepreneurship and science are very similar. “Keep asking basic questions until you get a response you understand the logic behind. If you have an idea, ask people for their opinion. Talk to people with business experience who are not scientists. They will consider the proposition in a completely different light from you. And most importantly, listen to what they suggest with an open mind.”

The University’s postgraduate programmes in Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship have been replaced with the Master of Business Development which can be studied online.


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