From small ideas grow big solutions: how members of Imperial’s alumni community working in sustainability innovation are leading the way.
(MSc Innovation Design Engineering 2014)
Q. How did Imperial help develop the business?
The beauty of a Master’s degree is it allows you the freedom to explore new ideas. My co-founder, Rodrigo García González (MSc Innovation Design Engineering 2014), and I come from different backgrounds, but we set out to find an alternative to the small plastic bottle that litters the world.
We looked at many natural materials and chanced upon seaweed after reading about a technology developed in the 1930s by Unilever to make fake caviar balls using seaweed extract. We tried to recreate the process in our kitchen and, after a few iterations, were able to make the first prototype of Ooho, an edible water bubble.
Q. What happened next?
It was clear there were a lot of people out there looking for an alternative to plastic water bottles. We knew we had a good concept, but it took some time to articulate the business proposition, and we needed to acquire new skill sets.
Through Imperial Innovations, we benefited from masterclasses on marketing, recruitment, fundraising and financial modelling, as well as access to mentors. After graduating, we continued to work from the South Kensington Campus, involving first-year chemistry students. When we started recruiting our own team, we spoke to members of the Innovation team to benchmark salaries and compensation. Now we are a team of 20.
Q. What are your plans for the future?
Our first product, Ooho, was very differentiating, but now we are moving on to looking at means of waterproofing cardboard and new products such as transparent film to protect dry foodstuffs and electronics. The potential is enormous – we aim to become the Tetra Pak for sustainable packaging.
The Master’s year we were in produced six or seven startups that have gone on to raise millions. It shows that combining people of different backgrounds who are not afraid to go beyond their training can be hugely successful. As for us, if we were experts, we would probably have said our idea was never going to work – but we thought, why not give it a go? And we got the support to make it happen.
Pierre Paslier studied the MSc/MA Innovation Design Engineering programme jointly run by Imperial and the Royal College of Art before launching Notpla in 2014.
Dr Olivia Ahn
(MBBS Medicine 2017)
Q. What gave you the idea for Polipop?
I have struggled with my periods for a long time and, back in 2016, asked my flatmate, Aaron Koshy (BEng Biomedical Engineering 2015, MSc Innovation Design Engineering 2017), to pop out and buy some sanitary towels for me.
He came back with half the shop; he was shocked by the price and quality of the products available and didn’t know what to buy. We had a long discussion, and for the first time I had to justify my periods and consider why they led to so much waste. Aaron was looking for a project on sustainability, so we set out together to create a biodegradable sanitary pad.
Q. How did you turn the idea into a viable business proposition?
As a medic, I had no experience of business, yet we were developing a consumer-facing product that would need marketing expertise. I heard about Imperial’s Enterprise Lab WE Innovate programme for teams led by women with an early-stage business idea, and entered their annual competition. It was stressful, as my finals were the day after the WE Innovate final, but we won and the £10,000 first prize allowed us to develop the product and understand the marketplace.
Fundraising aside, the Imperial Enterprise Lab has given us enormous support in developing business, marketing and PR plans, and introduced us to mentors, a few of whom have since become investors.
Q. What stage of development are you at?
Our first prototype used a crude thermosealing process. But we soon realised the issue was not biodegradability but flushability – every day in the UK alone, two million sanitary pads are flushed down the toilet.
There are stringent flushability protocols and we worked with Johnson & Johnson to learn from their testing while also developing a novel manufacturing process.
Our final prototype is currently awaiting independent flushability certification and UK and global patents are pending. We hope to launch in 2020. But I still practise as a locum doctor and I shy away from the word entrepreneur – I prefer to describe myself as a doctor who also has a business.
Dr Olivia Ahn launched Polipop, the market’s first safely flushable and completely biodegradable sanitary products, in 2017.
(BSc Physics 2018)
Q. How did Matoha get started?
One of our co-founders, Martin Holicky (BSc Chemistry 2019; MRes Nanomaterials 2019), went on a school visit to a recycling plant in Bratislava, Slovakia, and was shocked to find that, in an EU country, waste was still being hand-picked on a conveyor belt. The plastic-sorting process consisted solely of manual labourers taking out plastic bottles and incinerating the remainder.
He came up with the idea of using infrared spectroscopy to build a simple machine that could provide better ‘eyes’ to a manual sorting system. But what really got us started was winning first prize in the Faculty of Natural Sciences’s Make-A-Difference (MAD) competition for the best innovation in 2017.
Q. How did the Imperial environment help?
Without MAD I would not be here! After being selected to compete at the finals of the competition, the original team realised that changes to their idea required physics and data-analysis skills, and I was brought on board.
However, much more importantly, this gave us not just funds but also our first validation. And the Imperial Enterprise Lab is the place where all the innovation I have experienced at Imperial has taken place. It has become one of my favourite places. When we can, we use it regularly, for work, meetings and filming video pitches, but also as a place to meet other entrepreneurs.
Q. What’s next for Matoha?
It is a difficult challenge to monetise the recycling industry while also maximising environmental impact and considering social values in an industry that, in many countries, is driven by manual labour.
We are at a very exciting stage, though: our newest prototype is currently undergoing testing in facilities around the world; we are developing a fabrics-analysis device for those working in fabrics technology and manufacturing; and we’re exploring new ways to bring our core technology to a wider audience.
Although we still have challenges to overcome, we’re confident that we’ll keep up our current rate of progress and innovation for quite some time.
James Kung is Co-founder of Matoha, the 2017 startup enabling plastics recycling worldwide that won the Institute of Physics’ Startup Innovation Award in 2019.