Godwin graduate has passion for sustainability
When Julianna Keeling was growing up in Henrico County, her family made annual trips to Acadia National Park in Maine.
On their nature hikes, “my parents would tell my brother and me to put our hands into the soil and onto the trees and feel the earth. We have always been taught to respect the people around us, and the environment we live in,” she said.
The lessons stuck with Keeling, who has carried a passion for sustainability and environmental science through high school and college and now to the creation of her startup company, Terravive.
The name Terravive is derived from the Latin words for Earth and life, and Keeling’s goal is to give people more environmentally friendly choices of household products at an affordable price. Terravive manufactures such products as bags, straws, plates, utensils and cups that are made from plant-derived, biopolymer materials designed to reduce pollution.
“I am in this because I genuinely care about sustainability,” Keeling said. “I want to spend my life moving the needle in sustainability, and the best way we can make an impact on sustainability is reducing the amount of plastic in our landfills and oceans.”
Terravive’s utensils look and feel like plastic utensils. But unlike plastic, they are biodegradable when discarded into the environment and can even be tossed into a backyard compost heap.
Three years after she founded Terravive while attending Washington and Lee University, Keeling has built a customer base among institutions that run food service operations and buy tableware — colleges and correctional facilities, for instance.
This summer, Keeling attended a two-month incubator for Gen Z startup founders hosted by retailer Target Corp. in Minneapolis. Terravive will soon start a pilot program selling its products at a limited number of Target stores, with the possibility of expanding to others if the pilot is successful.
Keeling, 23, attended Mills Godwin High School and studied chemistry and environmental studies at Washington and Lee.
“I got really interested in chemistry because I realized chemistry could be used as a tool to solve some of our greatest environmental issues,” she said.
Keeling took a year off from college after her first year to work for another startup company in San Francisco, where she met mentors who helped her develop plans for a business making biodegradable materials.
After attending the Target incubator, she returned to Richmond to participate in the Lighthouse Labs startup accelerator, a local nonprofit that offers a 13week mentoring and business planning program for startup companies. Terravive is one of seven companies chosen for this fall’s Lighthouse Labs program.
Keeling said the networking and mentoring in the Lighthouse Labs program has been helpful.
“I was really drawn to the fact that Lighthouse Labs does not take equity,” she said. “I think many accelerators do take equity, and I can understand why they do that, but it can be detrimental to the growth of a young company.”
One of the key issues that Terravive faces is marketing. “How do we communicate to people that our products are not plastic?” she said.
The biopolymers that Terravive uses have been known to chemists for decades but have not been used much in consumer products, Keeling said. Terravive’s edge is a proprietary process that reduces the cost of manufacturing, she said. The company is using contract manufacturers.
“It can be made at the same price as plastic at scale,” said Keeling, adding that the price at retail would be competitive with plastic tableware and bags.
“We are just leveraging the processes and materials that the Earth has had for a long, long time,“she said.