Bioplastics innovator Julianna Keeling thinks a lot about creating a healthier planet. It’s something she’s been thinking about most of her life. “My parents taught me to respect people and the natural environment,” she said.
Growing up near Richmond, Virginia, Keeling, a 2019 graduate of Sullivan Foundation partner school Washington and Lee University, took annual trips to Maine with her family. While hiking through Acadia National Forest, she said, “I would pause to press my hands onto the trunks of vibrant, strong trees and into the fertile soil, feeling its energy. I remember being in awe of the raw earth and feeling as though I was part of it. I’ve maintained that sense of being one with the planet since then.”
Keeling has turned that passion for the environment into a profitable business creating products that look and perform like plastic but break down like plants. Her company’s single-use bioplastic products are engineered to break down in sea and river water and the soil for consumers who want to reduce the nearly eight million tons of plastic waste polluting Earth’s oceans each year — not to mention the tens of millions of tons of land-based plastics.
Keeling began her business—Terravive, or “the Earth sustains itself”—in the spring of 2015 as a first-year student at Washington and Lee. But she had been thinking about and planning it since high school. “I was accepted into Henrico County’s STEM specialty program, and my first project looked at methylcellulose. As a result, I became aware of naturally occurring materials that could be as effective as plastics with similar performance characteristics.”
Terravive is a supplier of biodegradable tableware (cutlery, cups and bowls), various sizes of straws, resealable bags for food, trash bags, shopping bags, adhesives (stickers and clear masking tape) and industrial films. Most Terravive bioplastics products will break down in 90 days or less in a residential or commercial compost pile, ocean, river or soil.
Terravive has rapidly established its brand as the preeminent supplier of green plastic products. “When people see the Terravive brand on any product, anywhere in the world, I want them to think high-quality bioplastic that is better for you and the environment,” Keeling said.
Keeling took a gap year between her first year and sophomore years to work in San Francisco, where she said she “learned valuable lessons from its vibrant technology ecosystem.” With help from the former chief of research and development for PepsiCo, Keeling learned how to find and work with manufacturers on biodegradable packaging products. She was focused on both sustainability and reduction of corporate disposal expenditures.
Back at W&L, Keeling continued to work on her bioplastics business. After graduation, she became one of eight start-up company owners accepted into the highly competitive Target Incubator program.
“Target is a socially minded, brand-conscious and forward-thinking company,” said Keeling. The company wants to be more attractive to Gen Z and Gen Alpha consumers and strategically selects start-ups for the incubator program that are solving issues that Target faces. The four-month program combines virtual programming with an eight-week residency at Target headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota. During the residency, Keeling received mentorship, met with subject matter experts and participated in tailored workshops and team-building exercises, “all geared toward healthy, high-growth company operations while keeping the consumer’s needs forefront.”
In Richmond, she works with a second incubator program, Lighthouse Labs, that is focused on helping her build the Terravive brand and infrastructure of the business for sustained growth. She just hired an experienced entrepreneur as COO. Joe Swider is a mechanical engineer, graduate of VMI and a former U.S. Naval officer. He is working on corporate strategy, building out the team and operational infrastructure in order to scale the business. Currently Terravive supplies products to retail, restaurants, universities, government entities and other businesses.
Keeling stays hands-on with the business, often dealing with distribution herself seven days a week. She also oversees marketing and sales, focusing on extending the brand and the positive ecological impact of her products. “It involves hustling and calling people up. It’s not a hard product to sell,” she said, “because potential customers find they don’t have to spend more than they currently do on plastic products, yet they can have an immediate impact on the environment.” When taking into account the cost of disposing of plastic products, many customers can actually reduce their expenditures with bioplastics.
Balancing rigorous organic chemistry, biology and environmental studies courses at W&L and starting a company while in college was “really challenging,” said Keeling. “It was time- and resource-intensive. I sacrificed a lot.” She is grateful for the Johnson Scholarship, which “gave me the flexibility to choose what I was really passionate about.” The merit scholarship “afforded me the ability to take intellectual risks and really consider what I wanted to do with my life.”
She said she appreciates the support offered by Robert Humston, John Kyle Spencer Director for Environmental Studies and professor of biology and her advisor. “He was awesome and awarded me the Earle Bates Prize,” given to a graduating student who has shown excellence in academics, co-curricular activities, and contributions to the campus and community.
Kim Hodge, director of sustainability initiatives and education, worked closely with Keeling on composting research at W&L. As a result, “I saw first-hand how Terravive products break down.” This winter, Hodge and Keeling will co-present their research at the U.S. Composting Council.
Finally, a Spring Term class that took Keeling to the Lakota Indians’ Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota taught her that “our time on earth is not just about making money. We are tied to larger systems—other people and animals.”
Keeling has taken her life’s experiences—from hikes in Acadia to composting at W&L to learning the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world at Pine Ridge—and crafted a purpose and direction in life that will not only sustain her but also will help sustain the planet. “We at Terravive have an opportunity to build a high-growth, profitable business that moves the needle and creates a healthier planet for future generations.”
This story was edited slightly from the original article appearing on the Washington and Lee University website.