Paul Ceralde, MEng ’19 (MSE): “Never underestimate your capacity to learn.”

On his experience as a co-founder of a sustainable materials design company.

Paul Ceralde graduated from the Berkeley MEng program in 2019, where he studied Materials Science and Engineering. Since graduation, he’s co-founded a sustainable materials design company, Greenitio. Here, Paul speaks about his experience in the MEng program, entrepreneurial journey and passion for sustainability.

Paul at graduation

Tell us about yourself!

After completing my undergrad in the Philippines, I earned my Master of Engineering degree at UC Berkeley. I grew up loving chemistry, physics, and math. Going into college, I was looking for a program that particularly utilizes all of these fields of science. I ended up in materials science, which I think is very cool — there are lots of ways to bring new things into the world and create impact, hopefully.

I love challenges. I love solving great, big problems and making an impact on the world. That’s been my mantra in many things that I do: looking at the bigger picture and just making sense out of why I’m spending 10 or 12 hours a day doing something like this.

Can you tell us about your journey into the MEng program?

I always wanted to pursue grad school after my undergrad in the Philippines and I was looking at the US as a potential target. During my senior year in undergrad, we presented a paper in San Francisco at the American Geophysics Union meeting, and then luckily we ended up visiting Berkeley. We visited the Materials Science & Engineering department in the Hearst Memorial Mining Building, and we met a faculty member who happened to be walking along the corridor while we were looking at the demographics map of UC Berkeley students. We realized that there weren’t any pins in the Philippines, so we asked him, “Why don’t we have a pin in the Philippines? Are there not any Filipino students here?” We ended up talking and he told us that there’s actually a huge Filipino community at Berkeley, and then he also mentioned the particular scholarship that’s active between the Philippines and California. I took advantage of that conversation, looked into this scholarship, and it helped me pursue my MEng degree.

Hearst Memorial Mining Building

How did the MEng program impact your post-grad career trajectory?

During the MEng program, we do a capstone project where we partner with either a faculty member or an industry partner to work on the particular problem statement that they have. That’s where I met the company that I worked for after the program. It’s called Arris Composites and they were doing advanced manufacturing of composite materials using robotics and high-performance materials. I really resonated with their love for the technical side that they’re developing, as well as the potential that they’re unlocking by bringing in highly efficient materials into the world, which saves more fuel during travel and provides more comfort for consumer products. I would say that’s the highlight of my career, before founding my company. We were building really exciting stuff. I joined them when they were in a really small storage room that they’d transformed into an office, but when I left they’d expanded into two warehouses. That’s really inspiring for me because I know these people and they built this — truly an eye-opener for me of how companies are built.

The US is a very competitive environment for business, but so is Southeast Asia right now; there are a lot of things happening. I got into Southeast Asia by looking for opportunities to start my own company and bring the impact that I want to the world, and I found myself in Singapore with my co-founder.

“The UC Berkeley atmosphere is full of innovation, change, and impact.”

The UC Berkeley atmosphere is full of innovation, change, and impact. You go to a cafe and 90% of the people there are probably having meetings about potential ventures or how they want to make an impact on the world, and I’m ingrained with this mindset now.

What inspired you to co-found a sustainable materials design company?

I have a materials science and engineering background and I joined a program in Singapore called Entrepreneur First. That’s where I met my co-founder, Amit Kumar Khan. He earned a PhD in biopolymers and went on to develop a lot of products in pharmaceuticals — high-value, low-volume products. He approached me with the idea of introducing biodegradable polymers as sustainable alternatives into the mainstream market. We’re talking about cosmetics, fabric care, laundry care. The more I dug into those industries, the more I realized that the waste problem was not just the packaging but within the products themselves.

I learned that so many microplastics are added to consumer products. For example, when you wash your clothes, the microplastics get rinsed off and enter the ecosystem without you noticing. There’s so much spotlight on the plastics in packaging, and on things that we can see and hold, but the microscopic side of the actual product is also highly significant and very impactful when addressing the issue of plastic waste.

It’s even more dangerous because plastic packaging is easy to see and physically remove from the environment, and it only becomes hard to capture when it breaks down into microplastics, but microplastics that are added to the products themselves are invisible from day one. As a consumer, you’re often unaware of them.

Big companies are not very transparent in that sense. They’re not telling you about the environmental impact of using their laundry care or their shampoo. However, this is changing in Europe, which is one of the impetuses that we’re leveraging. They’re banning intentionally added microplastics, which are non-biodegradable, highly persistent, and potentially harmful plastics that are added into products for functionalities. Historically, they have been petroleum-based/oil-derived and these microplastics are being released invisibly into the environment. The combined amount of plastic that we unwittingly release to the environment every time we use a product is almost as big as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch but completely invisible.

These microplastics will be eventually consumed by fishes and other aquatic lifeforms. This is harmful to both marine life and humanity at large because a lot of these aquatic lifeforms can potentially end up on your plate. My fear is that we can face another environmental problem on a global scale similar to how the CO2 crisis came to be because the world allowed the situation to get out of hand. The tipping point for microplastics is very imminent.

Recently we’ve been talking to suppliers in Europe and a lot of them still don’t have viable solutions to the incoming regulation, so there’s pressure for them to innovate as well. I see this as a good entry point for highly innovative start-up companies like our company, Greenitio.

It’s difficult to replace ingredients that are historically made from petroleum or oil because you’re trying to source from nature, or from something sustainable. Replacing something highly engineered with something natural will have a low success rate because nature is random. We come into the picture saying we should not limit ourselves to what we can find from nature. Greenitio seeks to engineer new materials using currently existing natural, renewable materials to unlock new properties. We are doing so in a sustainable and scalable way using green chemistry processes that we developed. We are also leveraging adjacent technologies like computer-aided design and molecular simulations to increase the likelihood of success in coming up with alternatives that work. Sustainable options should never be associated with a compromise in performance.

We can talk about how we want to save the earth as long as we want, but if the solutions are not really sustainable for business, or for user experience, it’s really hard to implement them.

“We can talk about how we want to save the earth as long as we want, but if the solutions are not really sustainable for business, or for user experience, it’s really hard to implement them.”

What’s your favorite part of being a co-founder?

Everything. I mean, even the stress is formative.

I think that entrepreneurship these days is the easiest way to bring forth the change that you want, especially if you’re a highly ambitious person and creative or technical person.

As a co-founder, being in a position where I can steer the ship towards the solution or the impact that we want is highly rewarding and I think that’s the biggest part of this.

It’s very difficult and you learn a lot; you cry a lot out of both joy and pain, but at the end of the day, you ask yourself why you’re doing this, and every time you answer it, it gives you the energy to say, “okay, let’s take a rest, and then let’s do it again.”

What’s one thing this journey has taught you?

I’m surprised by how much we can learn about something. Many people are afraid of trying new things because of the uncertainty, but I’m surprised by our capability to learn when we’re interested in something, or when there’s an urgency to learn that thing. This entire start-up journey for me is really just like a learning process — I’m learning about the business, learning about the problem, learning about people, learning about everything really!

Never underestimate your capacity to learn. It’s really amazing how humans can adapt and learn, and we’re at a particular point in time where a lot of this knowledge evolves very rapidly. In five years, the breakthrough that you see now would be commonplace, and then people will be thinking about the next big thing. Immerse yourself in something that you’re really interested in because it can be hard to learn something that you hate, but never underestimate learning capabilities.

What was the biggest takeaway from your MEng degree?

The networking was invaluable for me. From week one, we were exposed to networking events. It’s like you’re being immersed into this different kind of culture, and it’s very helpful, not just for business but also for finding friends.

Paul during an MEng networking event

It’s called the Master of Engineering program and it’s for engineering leadership. Still, a lot of it goes really into making connections with people and just building your network, so that would be my biggest takeaway, and rightfully so. After the MEng program, I have friends and connections in probably 50 different countries.

What advice do you have for future MEng students?

It’s all about doing things with intent. I know sometimes you have to work with the hands that you’re dealt, and sometimes you don’t know what to do with them, but just finding a way to look at the bigger picture and being able to connect it to the hand you’re dealt is so important.

For instance, with the MEng program, you have capstone projects and you’re presented with all these different options. You’ve got to figure out what your intent is — why do these projects interest you? Don’t let the stream take you; take the wheel of education.

Learn more about Greenitio. Connect with Paul.

As told to Danielle Valdez.

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