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From microbes to methane

MBA student plans for cleaner landfills

February 25, 2015

Tristan Jackson, MBA ’15 (left) and Anass Afilal, MFin ’14 (right) with Allal Taheri, a waste handler in Morocco

Tristan Jackson, MBA ’15 (left) and Anass Afilal, MFin ’14 (right) with Allal Taheri, a waste handler in Morocco

All over the world, landfills overflow with garbage, leaching untreated toxins into the environment. MIT Sloan student Tristan Jackson’s ambition is to neutralize much of that waste—and generate renewable energy—through his startup, Kanoot.

“Most of the landfills in the developing world receive and store waste, but do not process or eliminate it,” said Jackson, MBA ’15. Kanoot sells a mix of microbes capable of digesting organic toxins and producing useful outputs, such as methane fuel.

While still in the early stages of development, the company is in negotiations with a landfill in Panama to use Kanoot’s technology to boost methane production for a planned 8.1 megawatt gas-fired electrical generator. “Kanoot microbes can boost methane production between 20 percent and 300 percent depending on the exact composition of the waste,” Jackson said. “This project will stop millions of gallons of toxic sludge from contaminating the surrounding area, greatly reduce atmospheric methane emissions, and produce megawatts of renewable energy.”

Jackson dates his passion for tackling environmental problems to his childhood in Maine, when he lived on a tiny island without grid electricity or running water. “I could see changes taking place in the [ocean] water that surrounded us, and I began to think I wasn’t doing enough to provide solutions to the larger problems facing humanity,” he said.

“I felt compelled to take a higher level role. That’s why I decided to come to MIT,” Jackson said. “I wanted to work internationally and push forward solutions to the related issues of how we handle and view waste, along with waste water, and how we produce our energy and our food.”

Jackson applied to MIT’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship and won a two-year fellowship based on his proposal for building a business supplying anaerobic waste management systems, known as biodigesters, to the developing world. “I was looking at Latin America, at remote coffee farms as sites where I would want to bring [in] low-cost energy [systems] … that would help villages be self-sufficient and be more resilient to changing conditions,” he said.

After gathering expert advice on campus—including from Senior Lecturer Jason Jay, director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan, Senior Lecturer Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, and from judges and mentors in MIT business plan competitions—Jackson decided that it wasn't feasible to build a business selling expensive hardware in rural, developing communities. The team explored selling biodigesters to U.S. dairy farmers, but again ran into difficult economics. Building small-scale biodigesters was proving cost prohibitive.

Instead, Kanoot set out to find big-budget customers with large waste problems, such as landfill operators. The team plans to design and build systems to treat landfills with microbes, then sell microbe powder to landfill operators. According to Jackson, their proprietary microbe mix has been verified in independent third party tests as the most effective remediation product on the market. Kanoot can currently deliver 10 tons of EPA-approved microbe powder per week—enough to treat 2 million square feet of landfill surface area and turn millions of gallons of toxic sludge to harmless omega-3 fatty acids and renewable energy.

Kanoot was incorporated in April 2014, and Jackson credits MIT with helping him pull all the pieces of the business together. Jackson met two of his three co-founders through the Legatum Center: Anass Afilal, MFin ’14, another Legatum Fellow who is now Kanoot’s chief financial officer, and Bill Baird, an engineer with 30 years of experience using microbes to break down toxins, whom he met through Frontier Markets Compendium founder John Kornet, a fellow attendee at a Legatum Center conference. The third co-founder, Mike Cassata, is an MBA graduate of Babson College.

Kanoot has also performed well in MIT business competitions, winning $5,000 in the 2014 MIT IDEAS Global Challenge and being named a semifinalist for the 2014 MIT Clean Energy Prize. “The competition system at MIT is great,” Jackson said. “The prize is nice to have, but you gain a whole lot from the process whether or not you win.”

The company’s next goal, Jackson said, is to fund a pilot project at the Panama landfill that can serve as a proof that their microbial solution will work on a large scale. “We’re talking to potential investors. We’re hoping to have a successful full launch by June,” he said.