Paige Balcom is a lifelong engineer, beginning as an “Inventioneer” in middle school and later winning the 2010 FIRSTLEGO League World Championship with her teammates. She earned a full academic scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the University of New Hampshire where she joined Engineers Without Borders. Her work with Engineers Without Borders led to the first of several life-changing trips to Uganda — starting with a two-week visit, later for 10 months as a Fulbright Scholar, and then again as a graduate student. Paige worked to address contaminated wells, and bridged her passions for mechanical engineering and social action by designing and building an aquaponic system at ChildVoice (a vocational school for child mothers traumatized by war). Paige worked at Gulu University during her graduate studies doing field research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on plastic waste.
During her time in Uganda, Paige was inspired to find a solution to a large problem there — recycling plastic waste. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most common plastic for single-use food packaging, including water and soda bottles. PET waste is a significant problem across the developing world because many countries like Uganda lack the infrastructure and technology to recycle this plastic, and it is often infeasible to ship it elsewhere for recycling.
Paige is currently a PhD student in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and has developed a locally-made, manually-powered recycling system to transform PET plastic waste into desirable household products such as wall tiles. Paige overcame obstacles posed by the brittle nature of PET and its flammability by altering the chemical structure of PET just enough to make it strong and prevent the brittleness and breakage that typically inhibits PET repurposing.
For this invention, among others, Paige has won the 2021 $15,000 “Use It!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. She describes the prize as a huge honor that validates her engineering and business model. She plans to use the prize money to finance grants in Uganda to support local innovators.
Paige founded Takataka Plastics, based on her new technology and multiple experiences in Uganda, with Peter Okwoko. Okwoko is a Ugandan community organizer and former university lecturer focused on social and environmental efforts. Takataka Plastics addresses the massive recycling issue while creating opportunities for marginalized street youth. The company established waste plastic collection sites and monthly neighborhood cleanups, and hires street-connected youth to prepare the PET plastic for processing and operate the machines that recycle plastic into consumer products. Takataka, which means “waste” in Swahili, provides street-connected youth with steady work, two meals a day, and counseling support, enabling vulnerable young people to transform their lives while transforming plastic waste for reuse.
Paige has earned multiple awards, including an NSF Fellowship, several Fulbright honors, an Institute for International Education Centennial Fellowship, and a USAID Global Development Fellowship. She has also won the Berkeley Big Ideas Innovation Competition, and been named a Clinton Global Initiative University COVID-19 Student Action Fund Awardee, a Stanford Global Energy Hero, and the 2016 University of New Hampshire Woman of the Year.
Paige appeared on Shark Tank as a young inventor pitching her secondary invention, the SMARTwheel, which directly addresses the primary danger in distracted driving — the driver’s hands moving off the wheel. The device uses patented sensing technology based on hand position on a steering wheel to provide real-time audio and visual alerts to reduce distracted driving.
Paige is focused on engineering to improve people’s lives. She splits her time between the U.S. and Uganda, collaborating with Ugandan colleagues, engaging local communities, and mentoring and supporting both engineering students and street youth. After finishing her PhD, Paige plans to return to Uganda to scale up Takataka Plastics and teach engineering and social entrepreneurship at a local university.