The Greater goop Awards:
The Innovators

Shaking up the status quo is one thing. But really changing the way we conduct our lives—by changing the way we shop, the way we clean, even the way we fly—that’s called innovation. Meet the people on the front lines of the future.

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  • John McGeehan Headshot
  • John McGeehan

    professor of structural biology, University of Portsmouth

    Polyethylene terephthalate is a problem. In fact, PET, as it’s commonly known, is such a problem that scientists have been searching for a solution for decades. See, PET is the plastic that’s used to create single-use soft drinks, juices, and water. It’s also used for things like salad dressings, peanut butter, cooking oil, mouthwash, conditioner, liquid hand soap, household cleaners, polyester, carpets, you name it. That part isn’t the problem. The problem is that it takes hundreds of years to break down.

    In 2016 in Japan, a team of scientists discovered an enzyme that breaks down PET plastic. Then a professor named John McGeehan, a research scientist of structural biology and the director of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, looked into the enzyme and took it a step further. Actually, make that a few miles further.

    McGeehan and a team at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory engineered a new and improved version of that enzyme. The team studied the enzyme stem and how the lignin—a material plants form to provide strength and defense against foreign substances—is broken into chemicals. This improved version of the enzyme is more efficient and able to break down plastics on faster and wider scale. It can break down materials in a matter of days, as opposed to centuries, which is how long it currently takes plastic to break down. And as a versatile enzyme, it has the potential to work on a wide range of molecules. And if that’s not enough, McGeehan and his team are also looking at ways to develop an even faster enzyme, one that could be recycled and reused as a part of a recyclable plastics economy.

  • Paul Dillinger Headshot
  • Paul Dillinger

    VP of Global Product Innovation, Levi’s

    Making distressed, torn, frayed, worn-in-just-so jeans takes effort, energy, and countless gallons of toxic chemicals that seep into our waterways and poison the earth. Except, these days, at Levi’s.

    Take Project F.L.X., which stands for future-led execution, is one piece of the company’s effort to redo everything we know about treating denim. This new system uses lasers to do what hours of washing, stonewashing, and chemicals do.

    The lasers can create holes, make frays, and fade jeans in seconds, according to the buyer’s design, and using them can cut the manufacturing process down by almost 90 percent—bringing the production process much closer to the consumer, which helps save resources and, hopefully, the planet. By 2020, the company expects that all its jeans will be finished using laser technology.

    But lasers are just one part of a multipronged effort. When it comes to large-scale production, the brand has been implementing techniques that use far less water than traditional methods, experimenting with new fiber strategies, committing to zero discharge by 2020, and working hand in hand with farmers around the world to find less-damaging methods of cotton production. “We’re not fully there yet,” says Paul Dillinger, the vice president of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., who leads many of these efforts. So this year, the company announced a new Climate Action Strategy that will look deeper inside the company’s operations: They want to cut greenhouse emissions by 40 percent across their supply chains and by 90 percent at facilities they own and operate by 2025. This means looking at the impact a single pair of jeans has throughout its life span—from the farmers growing the cotton to the people disposing of your 501s—to guide the company’s sustainable design. “It’s simply not possible to think of a supply chain as just a linear thing. It’s a series of interconnected ecosystems, and we have to pay close attention to what’s happening in all of them,” says Dillinger.

    As a designer, Dillinger is also focused on innovative strategies that “demonstrate the value of intentional design and radical transparency,” he says. Dillinger notes that his “research through practice” approach to innovation has led to instances where we can wear a jacket and know exactly where the cotton was grown, know who the farmer was who grew it, and know how much water was saved in the process. The company also makes its innovation open-source, so others can follow suit, adding to the increased trend of information sharing around sustainability that’s happening across swaths of the apparel industry.

    “It has to be about more than any one company,” says Dillinger. “We need policies and incentives for companies and suppliers throughout the supply chain to push themselves to do as much as they can, as well as they can, as quickly as they can, to have the greatest possible positive impact.”

  • Jeff Engler Headshot
  • Jeff Engler

    founder and ceo, wright electric

    “I started looking at my carbon footprint and was surprised to see that each small, incremental flight I took had a massive impact on my carbon footprint,” says Jeff Engler. It was a discovery that led to Wright Electric, a Los Angeles–based start-up that is trying to disrupt the aviation industry by developing commercial electric aircrafts that Engler founded in 2016. And it’s on the fast track.

    Wright Electric successfully developed a two-seater battery-operated aircraft that can fly for approximately an hour, and within a year, the company expects to fly a nine-seater jet that will fly for about two hours. Its fast growth landed it a partnership with the British-based budget airline EasyJet, and there are plans to develop the first 150-seat battery-powered plane by 2030.

    The partnership also plans to develop a 50-seater jet before scaling to the larger, 150-seat model. These advancements would allow for battery-operated planes to make popular short trips—from Washington, D.C., to New York City, say, or London to Amsterdam, or any flight under two hours. The battery-operated models aren’t just better for the world; they are also 50 percent quieter and 10 percent cheaper than conventional aircraft.

    It’s an incredibly ambitious and promising undertaking from Engler—someone who started out just by looking at his carbon footprint and wanting to fly without making it worse. Says Engler, “I just thought I’d give it a go.” In the next few years, we may all be giving flying electric a go.

  • Samantha Miller Headshot
  • Samantha Miller

    president and chief scientist, pure analytics laboratory

    For almost three decades, Samantha Miller has been studying cannabis. Yeah, but not like that. Miller is an academic.

    Her background is in biochemistry and academic research, she’s worked on the development of prodrugs for cancer and AIDS, and she’s been on the front lines of innovating products that help people. The leap to cannabis wasn’t a big one for her.

    She has long understood the vast potential for accessible medical-grade cannabis. “It’s life’s challenging moments that make you question what you stand for and what your legacy will be,” she says. Those are the moments “that make you realize what’s important to you.”

    In 2010, Miller founded Pure Analytics Laboratory, a cannabis-analysis facility based in Sonoma, California, which studies and tests cannabis, enabling regulation of an industry in grave need of regulation.

    “There was an enormous gap between the peer-reviewed information that existed and what was accessible to people,” she says. “I realized I could make a positive contribution to people’s lives by providing them with information they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

    Then, in 2016, Miller worked with Dosist—a company developed to make cannabis therapy simple and precise—and created cannabis dose pens that could deliver cannabis in specific, measured doses. It was a simple but pivotal innovation. For people taking cannabis, Miller’s creation took the guesswork out of using the drug and gave them transparency into exactly what and how much THC or CBD they were getting. The success of Miller’s predosed pens is a huge part of what pushed cannabis therapeutics in the realm of wellness and credibility.

    Knowledge, they say, is power. And Miller’s mission is to equip people with as much knowledge as possible in this new and often-misunderstood realm is a way to empower all of us.