El­e­va­tor pitch

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Hum­ble­bee, No Ugly and Smar­tass

We gave Hum­ble Bee founder Veron­ica Steven­son a lit­tle longer than an el­e­va­tor ride to pitch her biotech startup that mim­ics the ma­te­rial cre­ated by a species of na­tive bee that’s just like plas­tic.

It’s no se­cret that hu­man kind’s fix­a­tion with plas­tic is cost­ing the planet greatly. The rate at which plas­tic is end­ing up in oceans has been dubbed a ‘plan­e­tary cri­sis’ by the United Na­tions Oceans chief, while the EU plans to en­sure that ev­ery piece of pack­ag­ing in the con­ti­nent is re­us­able or re­cy­clable by 2030.

In New Zealand, Col­mar Brun­ton’s Bet­ter Fu­tures 2017 re­search found that build-up of plas­tic in the en­vi­ron­ment is the fifth big­gest con­cern Ki­wis are fac­ing. But Veron­ica Steven­son be­lieves she may hold the key with her biotech start-up born out of Welling­ton, Hum­ble Bee.

Steven­son has a back­ground in re­pro­duc­tive anatomy and struc­tural bi­ol­ogy, as well as a Masters in science com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The idea for Hum­ble Bee was in­spired by a line she read in a sci­en­tific jour­nal about a species of soli­tary bee which makes a nat­u­ral nest­ing ma­te­rial that has the prop­er­ties of plas­tic.

“This pa­per I was read­ing was writ­ten by an en­to­mol­o­gist (an in­sect ex­pert) and there was a throw­away com­ment from them: ‘The bees are us­ing this ma­te­rial to store their lar­vae and man­ag­ing to pre­vent fun­gal and bac­te­rial in­va­sions, as well as wa­ter dam­ag­ing their de­vel­op­ing brood.’ Then they’d writ­ten – ‘it’s kind of like cel­lo­phane, I won­der if it could be used as a plas­tic?’ And then went back to talk­ing about the life cy­cle of the lar­vae,” Steven­son says.

She got hold of the ma­te­rial and had it an­a­lysed by AgRe­search and found it had in­cred­i­bly use­ful in­dus­trial prop­er­ties, such as re­sis­tance to fire, acids, bases, oil and wa­ter.

Steven­son says she thinks the rea­son no­body has cap­i­talised on the ma­te­rial made by these bees yet is they’re soli­tary, un­like honey bees.

“They’re tiny and they make it to their spec­i­fi­ca­tions, so it’s about try­ing to re­move the bee from the equa­tion and make it an ap­pro­pri­ate scale for in­ter­na­tional mar­kets,” she says. “That’s where the chal­lenge is. That’s what we’re solv­ing.”

The next step was to get up close and per­sonal study­ing the process the bees went through to cre­ate the ma­te­rial.

Steven­son says to do so, she em­barked on a crash course in “bee real es­tate de­sign”, which meant cre­at­ing an en­vi­ron­ment or ‘apart­ment block’ that the crea­tures would hap­pily make a home out of in the wild to study them.

The bees weren’t ex­actly easy go­ing in their re­quire­ments, ei­ther. Some of their de­mands in­clude en­sur­ing they didn’t have too many neigh­bour bees in their apart­ment block as they pre­fer soli­tude, as well as a dap­pled light ef­fect inside, which Steven­son cre­ated via a laser.

Sci­en­tists from the Fer­rier Re­search In­sti­tute have since been study­ing the bees and their in­ter­nal anatomies and are go­ing to try repli­cate a way of man­u­fac­tur­ing the ma­te­rial in the lab us­ing biomimicry, which is the im­i­ta­tion of mod­els, sys­tems or el­e­ments of na­ture for solv­ing hu­man prob­lems.

While Hum­ble Bee is early stage, pre­prod­uct, Steven­son’s aim is to dis­rupt the plas­tics in­dus­try – and she’s just been awarded a Cal­laghan In­no­va­tion project grant worth up to $120,000.

The first mar­ket she wants to tar­get is the out­door ap­parel mar­ket, which uses a type of plas­tic (poly­mers) as a pro­tec­tive layer on top of their cloth­ing from wa­ter and oil.

“This mar­ket is par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to the is­sue of plas­tic pol­lu­tion and the use of toxic chem­i­cals in their prod­ucts, be­cause the people who are their cus­tomers love the out­doors,” Steven­son says.


What I’ m try­ing to do i s cre­ate a com­pany with a prod­uct that i s so com­pelling from a per­for­mance and a price point that i t’s go­ing to be a no brainer to shift. If we start at a re­ally high l evel, the amount of plas­tic go­ing i nto water­ways and l and­fills will change i mme­di­ately. NO UGLY We gave Aaron Tay­lor a l i ttle l onger than an el­e­va­tor ri de to pitch his sci­en­tif­i­cally for­mu­lated well­ness tonic, No Ugly.

“They don’t want their tent to have been made us­ing deeply toxic ma­te­ri­als that hurt the habi­tat they en­joy.”

Af­ter all, Bri­tish fash­ion de­signer Alexan­der McQueen once said, ‘There is no bet­ter de­signer than na­ture’. So, it makes sense that in or­der to fix a prob­lem deeply im­pact­ing on the en­vi­ron­ment – plas­tic – na­ture’s de­sign prin­ci­ples should be used as in­spi­ra­tion.

The next step for Steven­son’s team is cap­i­tal rais­ing so Hum­ble Bee can man­u­fac­ture a small amount based off the for­mula they’ve come up with, do a per­for­mance analysis and com­pare their syn­thetic ver­sion to the bee’s ma­te­rial and see how they fared.

At the mo­ment, Steven­son thinks their syn­thetic ver­sion will be ef­fec­tive, but says it might not be af­ford­able enough to man­u­fac­ture at scale yet.

“We’re drown­ing in plas­tic so we’ve got to be cheap, and we’ve got to be com­pet­i­tive,” she says.

Steven­son says they’ll be us­ing the genes that the bees use to make the ma­te­rial and de­velop man­u­fac­tur­ing mi­crobes, which will help them get to a dis­rup­tive price point.

If all is suc­cess­ful, the plan af­ter that is to go global im­me­di­ately. Steven­son says she re­ceived a let­ter of in­tent from the CEO of a global chem­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany that says if Hum­ble Bee pulls this off, any brand in the world will want to be talk­ing to them.

She says the ma­te­rial could also be used in drug de­liv­ery, con­struc­tion, avi­a­tion and con­sumer plas­tics and pack­ag­ing, but the out­door ap­parel mar­ket will be the main fo­cus ini­tially.

“One thing about these new reg­u­la­tions around plas­tic is they’re go­ing to put more pres­sure on in­dus­tries to find al­ter­na­tives. Cur­rently, the al­ter­na­tives are ex­pen­sive and not quite as good as the sta­tus quo, and that means there’s not enough in­dus­try in­cen­tive to shift yet,” she says.

“That to me is a real prob­lem, so what I’m try­ing to do is cre­ate a com­pany with a prod­uct that is so com­pelling from a per­for­mance and a price point that it’s go­ing to be a no brainer to shift. If we start at a re­ally high level, the amount of plas­tic go­ing into water­ways and land­fills will change im­me­di­ately.”

In 2018, cast­ing a glance around the world can be a bit dis­heart­en­ing. There’s global lead­ers who es­pouse racist, of­fen­sive views, com­pa­nies with cor­rupt prac­tices and food and bev­er­ages be­ing cre­ated with some nasty in­gre­di­ents in the mix.

En­ter No Ugly well­ness tonic. Its founders, Auck­land-based Aaron Tay­lor and part­ner Jo, have worked in the ad­ver­tis­ing sec­tor for more than 20 years, work­ing on clients that span from banks to beer, and from fash­ion to food.

They’d no­ticed the rise of the con­scious, health-minded con­sumer: a grow­ing group of shop­pers who were cut­ting out prod­ucts, in­gre­di­ents, be­hav­iours or be­liefs that didn’t align with their own val­ues and were neg­a­tively im­pact­ing on them or the planet.

“We felt there was some­thing in­ter­est­ing about a brand that be­came the clar­ion call for people who re­jected ugly,” Aaron Tay­lor says. “A brand that was brave and spunky with a higher pur­pose: to wage a war on ugly.”

Af­ter look­ing into the un­tapped po­ten­tial of the well­ness cat­e­gory, the pair de­cided they wanted to launch a well­ness drink.

Be­fore 42 Be­low, vodka i n New Zealand was ho­hum. Be­fore Lewis Road Cream­ery, milk was very com­modi­tised. The same goes for Well­ness. No Ugly i s the l i ght­house brand that stands out from the rest.

“It was easy to iden­tify: people love drinks, hy­dra­tion is crit­i­cal and people are far more aware of it,” Tay­lor says. “Well­ness bev­er­ages were boom­ing glob­ally, over 28 per­cent growth between 2010 to 2015 (ac­cord­ing to a 2016 Euromon­i­tor Re­port), the av­er­age price for a well­ness bev­er­age in New Zealand was around $12, and be­yond the ‘en­ergy’ seg­ment, there was ex­po­nen­tial growth in seg­ments that solved a real prob­lem for people. It was a no brainer, re­ally.”

As well as this, they had taken a close look at the brand­ing of pre-ex­ist­ing drinks and felt they lacked ex­cite­ment.

“We want well­ness to be fun and ac­ces­si­ble, and do­ing some­thing good for your­self that can make you feel good like a fash­ion or booze brand can,” he says.

He says New Zealand’s in­creas­ingly pop­u­lated Kom­bucha mar­ket is ev­i­dence of this.

“The brands in that seg­ment are hang­ing their hat on a recipe or flavour pro­file. And it’s easy to copy. But that goes for most bev­er­ages. We need a strong brand to rise above the sea of same­ness that the en­tire cat­e­gory is fast be­com­ing. Be­fore 42 Be­low, vodka in New Zealand was ho-hum. Be­fore Lewis Road Cream­ery, milk was very com­modi­tised. The same goes for well­ness. No Ugly is the light­house brand that stands out from the rest.”

Tay­lor says they de­cided the prob­lem they wanted to tackle was people jug­gling many re­spon­si­b­li­ties in life and feel­ing as though they’d burned the can­dle out at both ends.

Af­ter bring­ing food tech­nol­ogy con­sul­tant Jan Wuis on board and tri­alling dif­fer­ent for­mu­las, flavours and nu­tri­ents, 30 it­er­a­tions later, No Ugly had found its magic in­gre­di­ent: en­zogenol, an an­tiox­i­dant ex­tracted from the bark of New Zealand grown pine trees.

Tay­lor says all the health ben­e­fits touted by the brand are pre-ap­proved claims by the Food Stan­dards Author­ity and are well re­searched.

The ex­tract has been proven to in­crease alert­ness, cog­ni­tive per­for­mance and im­prove mem­ory. It’s also of­ten used to treat brains af­ter a trauma, such as a con­cus­sion or stroke. Re­search by AUT Univer­sity has found people with brain in­juries who took it were three times more likely to re­cov­ery ev­ery­day mem­ory than those who took a placebo.

In De­cem­ber, the team tweaked its pro­duc­tion sys­tems with a few hic­cups (one flavour wasn’t ready in time for launch due to a key in­gre­di­ent not be­ing de­liv­ered). No Ugly started off just on­line with a small au­di­ence, but once it hit Farro Fresh and other shops, Tay­lor says sales have gone “ab­so­lutely nuts”.

“It’s amaz­ing how in­flu­en­tial Farro Fresh can be for start-ups,” he says.

The other ini­tia­tive that sets No Ugly apart from its coun­ter­parts is its sub­scrip­tion ser­vice. When the Tay­lors re­alised the bot­tle they’d cho­sen looked a bit like a quart milk bot­tle, they imag­ined what it would look like in a crate.

That sparked the idea to set up a sub­scrip­tion ser­vice where people can re­ceive a reg­u­lar de­liv­ery of a crate of No Ugly drinks, with the emp­ties be­ing col­lected and re­cy­cled by the brand too. For each Swappa Crate re­turned for re­cy­cling, No Ugly donates a lunch to Eat My Lunch.

Tay­lor says the sub­scrip­tion model is sim­i­lar to what Eat My Lunch and My Food bag have built their busi­nesses on, as people love con­ve­nience and brands with a higher pur­pose.

He says it also helps with the is­sue of re­cy­cling be­ing no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to sort.

“No Ugly is wag­ing a war on ugly, this is our way of do­ing some­thing good for the en­vi­ron­ment. Hence, we now have No Ugly Swappa Crate and it’s grown at 500 per­cent each month since we launched – of a tiny base of course, but it’s grow­ing very quickly and people aren’t fall­ing off.”

About 20 stores are stock­ing No Ugly’s bev­er­ages cur­rently, with about five more sign­ing up each week. The drink is cur­rently avail­able in two flavours – gin­ger and cu­cum­ber.

Tay­lor says the plan is to con­tinue ex­pand­ing, as well as rolling out a new flavour and new sum­mer for­mats in 2018. Even­tu­ally, they’d like to move into new prod­uct cat­e­gories as well.

“Our vi­sion is to be the most valu­able well­ness brand on the planet,” he says. “There are many ver­ti­cals we can go into – we just have to stick to the plan, not get dis­tracted by too many shiny things and by 2020, we’ll be on fire glob­ally.”

S SMARTAS We gave Tony Small slightly l onger than an el­e­va­tor ri de to tell us the story be­hind his com­pany In­no­cent Pack­ag­ing and i ts tree- free toi­let pa­per and ti ssue brand Smar­tass. It can't j ust be more sus­tain­able than the next prod­uct, be­cause you're only go­ing to sell i t to the 10 per­cent [who re­ally care]. So we need to pro­duce a prod­uct that people want to buy … You can buy a 20- pack of toi­let pa­per out there for $ 10, and ours i s go­ing to be $ 4.50 for four. We've got to cre­ate de­sire. I be­lieve the way that we do that i s through de­sign.”

I n the world of start-ups and in­no­va­tion, toi­let pa­per isn’t typ­i­cally the first thing that comes to mind. But sus­tain­abil­ity in­creas­ingly is. And In­no­cent Pack­ag­ing’s Tony Small spot­ted an op­por­tu­nity for a bet­ter, much cooler toi­let pa­per brand cheek­ily dubbed Smar­tass.

Smar­tass toi­let pa­per, which the web­site says is “cush­iony soft and strong”, is made us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of bagasse (a waste prod­uct from sug­ar­cane) and fast­grow­ing bam­boo. It’s also free of bleach, inks, dyes and per­fume.

It’s also a brand ex­ten­sion of In­no­cent Pack­ag­ing’s pre­vi­ous prod­ucts, which in­clude cof­fee cups, bowls, plates and other dis­pos­able food pack­ag­ing that’s made of plants.

Like many of the best busi­ness ori­gin sto­ries, Small says serendip­ity played a big part in the cre­ation of the Smar­tass brand and he says they “fell into the B2C busi­ness”.

“We sup­ply about 800 cafes through­out New Zealand. Ini­tially, we de­signed this prod­uct think­ing that we would sup­ply the bath­rooms with toi­let pa­per. And then people saw the prod­uct and started ask­ing where they could buy it, and so we built a web­site and started of­fer­ing sub­scrip­tion ser­vices. It's sort of just grown from that.”

While there is more po­ten­tial rev­enue with the B2C model, it is also a dif­fer­ent dis­ci­pline and “it's been a big tran­si­tion for how we deal with that de­mand”.

But it’s a tran­si­tion worth mak­ing. He says Smar­tass is now about 10 per­cent of par­ent com­pany In­no­cent Pack­ag­ing’s rev­enue. It is the com­pany’s big­gest sell­ing prod­uct and over the past 16 weeks, sales have tripled.

It hasn’t been all smooth sail­ing, how­ever. Small was con­fi­dent the cafes would love the idea of Smar­tass and sales would grow quickly. But af­ter they launched the prod­uct, noth­ing re­ally hap­pened.

“It took a good six months for it to get any trac­tion.” And if it hadn’t picked up re­cently, he said they were con­sid­er­ing flush­ing it.

While there are many com­pa­nies of­fer­ing sim­i­lar prod­ucts, Small sees a lot of po­ten­tial over­seas.

“We've just started sup­ply­ing cof­fee cups into Nor­way. We get a lot of in­quiry from Aus­tralia, and I'm head­ing to the U.S. and the U.K. next week to see what's go­ing on over­seas … Our goal over the next five years is [for In­no­cent Pack­ag­ing] to have a rev­enue of over $20 mil­lion.”

But he says there are some un­ex­pected pit­falls of be­ing in the toi­let pa­per busi­ness.

“It is funny. When I stay in ho­tels over­seas, and I'm meet­ing sup­pli­ers and stuff like that, I've got all these sam­ples, and I put them in my ho­tel room. I come back, and they've been chucked in the bin. I have to hide them now.”

It’s also very hard to change people’s en­grained be­hav­iour. And while many people claim they’re en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, they don’t of­ten act that way – some­times their buy­ing be­hav­iour may be mo­ti­vated by price or habit, es­pe­cially for a com­mod­ity prod­uct like toi­let pa­per.

But Small says that’s why Smar­tass spends a lot of its time, en­ergy and re­sources on de­sign.

“It can't just be more sus­tain­able than the next prod­uct, be­cause you're only go­ing to sell it to the 10 per­cent [who re­ally care]. So we need to pro­duce a prod­uct that people want to buy. You can buy a 20-pack of toi­let pa­per out there for $10, and ours is go­ing to be $4.50 for four. We've got to cre­ate de­sire. I be­lieve the way that we do that is through de­sign.”

Its smaller packs of toi­let pa­per, as well as In­no­cent Pack­ag­ing’s tis­sues and pa­per tow­els, are now in 13 Huck­le­berry su­per­mar­kets and it is cur­rently talk­ing to a big su­per­mar­ket chain about stock­ing the brand.

In the fu­ture, there’s also the po­ten­tial to roll out new sizes of toi­let pa­per packs.

“A big ques­tion we got when we launched the 48-pack on­line was ‘can we get it without any [plas­tic] wraps?’ And then, another ques­tion was, ‘can we buy smaller packs?’” Small says. “We've looked into pro­duc­ing a smaller pack for about a year, and we wanted to avoid plas­tic. So it's taken us a lot of R&D to work out how to make it af­ford­able but 100 per­cent plas­tic-free as well.”

Smar­tass also wanted to give some­thing back to the en­vi­ron­ment not only through more sus­tain­able prod­ucts, but through char­ity.

“We part­ner with a char­ity in New Zealand called Mil­lion Me­tres,” Small says.” Our rivers and streams are pretty pol­luted in New Zealand and our big­gest in­dus­try is tourism, yet we're ex­tremely waste­ful for a very small pop­u­la­tion. So we do­nate 10 per­cent of our profit to Mil­lion Me­tres to help them plant trees, to re­duce the waste in our rivers.”

The FMCG mar­ket is a com­pet­i­tive in­dus­try and challenger brands are likely to arise. Aus­tralian so­cial en­ter­prise Thankyou, soon to launch in New Zealand, is another brand with a more sus­tain­able, char­i­ta­ble ap­proach. It has now moved into ar­eas like nap­pies and is go­ing gang­busters.

So does, Small think the big global con­glom­er­ates that dom­i­nate the FMCG mar­ket will be wor­ried about Smar­tass and its ilk?

“I don't think so yet. From what we have seen, the toi­let pa­per in­dus­try is pretty com­pet­i­tive and pretty ag­gres­sive.”

But for now, in a com­pany where pun us­age is manda­tory, Small’s on a roll.

And, as he wisely says, when you’re 80 and look­ing back on your life, will you re­gret start­ing a busi­ness, or will you re­gret the busi­ness that you didn’t start? For Small, the an­swer is ob­vi­ous.

Cel­lo­phane like cell lin­ing of Col­leti­dae pic­ture by Wil­liam Nye, Bee Bi­ol­ogy and Sys­tem­at­ics Lab; courtesy of James H. Cane Veron­ica tak­ing photos Hy­laeus male

Phil Lester dis­sect­ing Hy­laeus bees for analysis Iso­lated coat­ing float­ing on wa­ter sur­face in ul­tra­mi­cro­tome used for vi­su­al­is­ing thin films

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