Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and what Notpla is
I am a London-based Innovation Design Engineer. I started my career as a Packaging Engineer for L’Oréal during the day, and hacking 3D-printers in my living room at night. I then decided to study design at the Royal College of Art and in 2013, I co-designed one of the first consumer delta 3D-printers. My passion for innovation led me to co-found two startups, Gravity Sketch (3D creation in VR) and Notpla (edible packaging).
Driven by the urge to act on our plastic crisis, I am now 100% focused on Notpla as Co-founder and Co-CEO. and I am member of the Industrial Advisory Board of Imperial College London Dyson School of Design Engineering.
Notpla is a London-based sustainable packaging start-up at the forefront of creating a new future. We are on a mission to make packaging disappear by pioneering the use of seaweed as an alternative to single-use plastic. You can check out our website to learn more.
What inspired you to start Notpla?
My co-CEO and I developed an early interest in plastic waste and the ways we could find innovative and positive alternatives to single-use plastic. We met on the Innovation design engineering masters at Imperial College London.
The project started with us thinking of fruit being a form of packaging that occurs in nature. An orange peel, for example, is the perfect natural container. Nature encapsulates liquids using membranes, made of natural materials. To mimic this idea of the natural container, we used edible ingredients to build our own, taking the concept to the extreme. In 2013, the first Ooho (edible water sachets) prototypes were made in our kitchen.
In 2014, we started to work alongside chemists at London Imperial College as a startup that became Notpla in 2019.
How does it work?
Ooho is flexible packaging for a wide range of liquids, 100% biodegradable and home compostable. It is a natural product made of seaweed, 100% plant-based and vegan.
To develop it, we looked at existing food industry or culinary techniques that were used to encapsulate liquid in a natural way. We got excited by a number of seaweed extracts that were in use, such as the creation of fake caviar through a spherification technique. We attempted to enlarge the little bubbles of caviar, and after numerous prototypes we managed to attain bigger bubbles which were transparent and edible.
What makes working at Notpla so rewarding?
Working at Notpla is extremely rewarding because we have the opportunity to tackle one of the main environmental issues of our modern life, single-use plastic. Notpla is made up of deeply passionate people who are excited about challenging the world, and are not afraid of doing things differently.
What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve faced in your entrepreneurial journey so far?
Getting the first investors was very hard. We struggled for months to raise funds with business angels and VC funds to develop the first prototype of the Ooho machine, and eventually decided to do a crowdfunding campaign instead. It was very successful, with over £850k raised in three days from 900 investors around the world.
What’s next in the pipeline for Notpla?
We are now using our seaweed-based technology to challenge other applications of plastic, one of them being plastic coatings on cardboard boxes such as takeaway boxes.We have developed Notpla’s second product, Notpla coating. Notpla Coating is naturally biodegradable and provides a grease proof and water-resistant barrier for paper products. We are now commercialising a coated box made of pure additive-free cellulose, and that includes a coating made from seaweed.
We are also exploring other opportunities, such as flexible films that would be a great packaging alternative for dry products that are currently in plastic sachets. Last year, Notpla did successful lab trials and so we are now working on the industrialisation process. Applications include packaging for hygiene, cleaning products such as detergents or pre-portioned foods such as pasta, coffee and drink flavourings.
2020 was a challenging year for everyone. What's it like to run your business through a pandemic, and have you got any tips on how to keep things going?
We had to adapt like everyone. Being a business developing physical products, there’s only so much we could do from home, so we had to find ways to continue improving the chemistry, engineering and design of our products. Luckily, we moved to a large industrial site with a lot of space for social distancing.
Any words of wisdom you would like to share with budding engineering entrepreneurs?
As your startup grows, the type of challenges also evolve, so you have to love solving non engineering challenges.. It’s a great learning experience but it means you have to enjoy being out of your comfort zone. It’s not for everyone!
What impact has the SME Leaders programme had on your business? What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt?
First of all, it’s a great opportunity to connect with fellow startup leaders who face very similar situations day-to-day, so the peer-to-peer learnings have been very helpful. Additionally, the coaching, mentoring and courses have been a valuable opportunity to boost a number of skills that are needed to support the growth of Notpla.
And finally, have you got any tips for potential applicants?
Don’t hesitate to apply or reapply. It’s a great programme that can really make a difference when you’re early stage. Additionally, it’s not only for classical engineers so don’t feel like what you’re working on is not in scope, because engineering is actually such a wide field. If it’s innovative, you’ll probably fit right in.
Tell us a random fact not many people know about you
I buy too many synths on ebay.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
When I was a child, I wanted to be…
If I wasn’t an entrepreneur, I would be…
No idea. Maybe working on something CRISPR related.
I don’t understand why…
We ended up with Brexit.
What’s your biggest weakness?
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Michael, Dwight, Pam and Jim from the Office (US)
When I’m not working at Notpla, I am…
Doing generative art
What are your top three desert island items?
OP-1, snorkelling mask, sketchpad
Do you have any life regrets?
Prefer not to think about it
If I could have a superpower, it would be…
If you could live a day in a life of another person, who would it be?
Which fellow Hub Member are you most impressed by?
All of them, so diverse!
And finally, if you could invent a new piece of tech, what would it be and what problem would it solve?
A device to compose music directly from your brain.