Stephen Mayfield, a molecular biology professor at UC San Diego, now has a stake in the business of footwear alongside partners Michael Burkart and Robert Pomeroy from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. After six years of research and experimentation, these professors are launching the world’s first biodegradable shoes through the company Blueview, of which Dr. Mayfield also serves as CEO.
Algae has long been a driving force for Dr. Mayfield. “Petroleum comes from algae,” he says. “It’s just fossil algae oil, and plastics come from petroleum. There are actually biodegradable plastics that exist, not many, but a few — so why not make those biodegradable plastics from algae oil?”
What began as a project to turn algae into fuel shifted into a quest to develop high-performance biodegradable polyurethane foams, which are used as shoe soles. When that material was finally developed, the three scientists set out to make a shoe that was also 100% biodegradable, which required developing 3D-knit sneaker upper material that was made entirely from plant fibers.
When these shoes outlive their usefulness, the polyurethane bottoms, known as Soleic Foam, along with the knit uppers, will fully biodegrade in compost bins, or even in soil or the ocean. That’s a big improvement over rubber soles that stick around underground for centuries.
The group has also developed algae-based flip-flops using Soleic Foam, which are licensed to Reef through their company Algenesis, of which Blueview is the consumer-facing brand.
“I came to UC San Diego a dozen years ago to start a collaborative center on algae biotechnology,” Dr. Mayfield says, “and from day one every single person I met was open to our collaborative ideas and our entrepreneurial approach — from the Chancellor to first-year students. Everyone here understands the UC San Diego mission to bring scientific solutions to pressing world problems. That’s what makes us, us.”
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