At Notpla, we are truly committed to putting an end to the plastic pollution problem.
Our solution? To make packaging disappear. Simple but ambitious — that’s what we do here at Notpla.
Our edible water bubbles, Oohos, are praised by an ever-growing climate-conscious audience all over the world. But how did it all begin? What have been our major steps along our journey? Here is our story.
Coming up with new ways of solving problems
Pierre and Rodrigo are the two co-founders and co-CEO of our start-up. They met on the Innovation design engineering masters at Imperial College London. Their course was all about coming up with new ways of solving problems. They were also encouraged to work on things they were passionate about:
‘Through my background in architecture, I developed an early interest in plastic waste and the ways we can use and reuse plastics to create brand new ideas. As far back as university, I used plastic bottles and bags to create vacuum formed sculptures, heated plastic bags to form toys, and used chewing gum to create furniture. So solutions to and for waste were always a big part of my projects. After my architecture degree, I went on to study industrial design in Sweden. I learnt that smaller-scale ideas can often have a bigger impact, as they are easier to replicate than those found in architecture. You can have a more positive impact by starting small. This led me to London, and Imperial College’s joint Innovation Design Masters with the Royal College of Art.’ said Rodrigo‘Much like Rodrigo, plastic and packaging was already a firm feature in my work. Having studied engineering in France, I went on to work as a packaging engineer for L’Oreal in Paris. Here I learnt so much about the industrialisation of packaging production and the shocking pace at which one industry could generate plastic waste. One project which made me realise the extent of the problem, and our reliance on plastic, was the redesign of face cream jars from glass to plastic. To replicate the expensive look and feel of glass, the marketing teams decided to use more plastic, making a thick plastic jar that felt like glass for the premium feel. The choice would lead to 30 tonnes of extra plastic being used in production each year. This excessive use of plastic and lack of awareness made me want to become part of the alternative, finding ideas that are more innovative and positive, not creators of more problems. This led me to the same master course as Rodrigo that year’ added Pierre
Concerned about plastic waste, they both developed an interest in finding innovative alternatives to single-use plastic.
Rodrigo was working on a project which studied how clouds deliver water: “ I was curious about how humans could transport water through the air in a similar way. Through our own artificial clouds, how could we deliver water to people without using plastic? In our early designs, you can really start to see our thinking behind Ooho. Answering the impossible questions as part of our ethos from the get-go.”
The Early Days of Oohos
How to deliver water to people without using plastic? A key question that was at the heart of their work.
They started with the idea of fruit being a form of packaging that occurs in nature. Like them, don't you think that an orange peel is the perfect natural container? Mirroring nature, they used edible ingredients to build their own sustainable packaging.
First, they looked at existing food industry or culinary techniques to encapsulate liquid. They finally got excited by some seaweed extracts. These extracts were used to create fake caviar through a spherification technique. Then, they tried to enlarge the little bubbles of caviar. After many prototypes, they ended up with bigger-sized bubbles, transparent and edible.
Oohos went viral!
Their first Ooho prototypes were developed in their kitchen in 2013. At that time, Rodrigo and Pierre were using ingredients they could easily find online. They released a video of their "cook it yourself" process on Creative Commons, an open-source framework. As a result of this, their idea began to snowball on social media, with one Business Insider video gaining 20 million views.
Natural packaging has been done before, but no one had made it edible. Having edible packaging proved that the concept was 100% safe and waste-free.
At first, Pierre and Rodrigo didn't think of the project as a business. Their early prototypes were fragile and they were both ready to wrap it up and move on to the next innovation. Yet, the amazing reaction from their video and the uniqueness of their product really made them think they were onto something. So they kept going and founded our company.
Around the same time, they won a start-up grant from the Climate KIC incubator, despite not yet being a company. There were also receiving calls with offers to buy shares in the business. So they thought they should probably set one up.
Skipping Rock Lab was born!
The next challenge was to name the product and the company. Both came quite easily: ‘Ooho’ was the sound of surprise most people had when trying one for the first time, so Ooho it was!
They named the company Skipping Rocks after a trip to New Zealand and skimming stones. They liked the idea of making rocks fly — it mirrored what they were trying to achieve with Ooho, doing the impossible. And everyone was starting labs in 2014.
Once their masters were wrapped up, they won the support of the Imperial College incubator. They set about streamlining our processes and optimizing the properties of the membrane. With the help of some enthusiastic first years, they were making membranes, adapting the recipes. They gave them away at festivals, markets, and other events in London and across the world, including the first of many marathons to come! They learnt a lot from people’s reactions. At this point, despite our name, we didn’t have a lab. To the concern of our neighbours (this was back in the Breaking Bad Era on Netflix) Skipping Rocks Lab consisted of Rodrigo’s kitchen, lab coats — for professionalism — and piles of white powders all over the kitchen…
Do It Yourself is the best way to describe Ooho in the early days. No one was earning a salary from the project. Rodrigo was teaching whilst Pierre was working for a different startup, Gravity Sketch. We spent a lot of time at Imperial twisting the arms of PhD students to spend a few hours of their time helping us develop our products and coming up with assignments for the business school students to help us study the market.
CrowdCube and the Power of Social Media
In 2017, Lise, our chief financial officer, joined the team to see if Ooho could build a real business. After months of pitching without anchoring any lead investors, they choose to do some equity crowdfunding. They began a CrowdCube campaign with no real idea of what this would result in. They had set a target to £400,000 and had a slow first day.
Luckily, the social media platform Now This found our campaign video and reshared it. Overnight, our Facebook and email exploded! Clearly, we are not the only ones who care about solving the plastic problem! The video eventually reached over 90 million views. This visibility helped reach the target on day 2, with contributions pouring in from 900 investors from every continent.
First exciting partnerships with big companies
This funding gives our start-up the opportunity to move into Domingo Street. This was a milestone, the first time we had a permanent space and real lab to work from. Pierre and Rodrigo felt they could start making progress, starting with hiring.
They hired their first chemists and engineers. Their main goal was to mechanise the process of making Oohos. Nic-named "The Rig", the first shape our machine took was a hand drill attached to a table.
They also start talking to big companies about their product. Their first big event was with Selfridges. This was a real game-changer, their first experience with a big label with high standards. They started working with Lucozade that same summer and were introduced to Just Eat. Many partners were also willing to collaborate on a small scale. Finally, They also started testing other products such as linings for coffee cups, using the same seaweed material.
Finally, the team also won a grant from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation which helped develop the machine further.
The team started producing for running events with a company called Run Through — a cool way to see how people engaged with the product in a sports setting. We also did our first production of sachets for a London restaurant with Just Eat — the first time testing sachets with consumers, and we had zero experience. First deliveries were a bit of a disaster, but Just Eat committed to testing without pressure so we could really test how viable this idea was. As we grew we committed to making our Ooho with the most reliable and sustainable sources of seaweed we could find.
2017 was definitely a successful year for us!
Making a Splash with Oohos x Glenlivet cocktails
By 2018 we had outgrown our office and it was time for us to move to a new location, Paradise Row. An ironic name considering the location; in a back alley behind a petrol station in Bethnal Green. It gave us the space we needed, which we soon filled twice over.
At that point, we were also starting to work on a new version of the machine which was supposed to be a more compact countertop machine, and we hired more engineers.
Throughout the year we continued to test the more mechanised product at festivals and events, so by this point, we are quite good at making the perfect bubble of cocktails.
That summer we were also invited to run a shop front for London Design Week in South Kensington, 2018.
We made some cocktails Oohos with Glenlivet in partnership with one of the best cocktail makers, Monica Berg. And once again, things grew much faster than we ever expected.
The video of the campaign went viral: we appeared in Forbes, TV presenters such as Trevor Noah or Ellen Degeneres were making jokes, mentioning that it was not the traditional way to drink whisky.
We even spotted some parodies! For Glenlivet, it was one of the best marketing campaigns they had ever done in terms of media reach.
To be honest, the media exposure was a bit disconnected from the actual event. We made a few 10 thousand Oohos in London but Glenlivet estimated a media reach of 1.4 billion.
At the event itself, there was every day a queue of 1 hour to get some Oohos. We were not expecting that much enthusiasm! Bartenders mentioned that they even served some people who had just flown all the way from India to try them!
The London Marathon
The London marathon had always been a big goal for us, a goal mentioned as far back as our first crowdfunder.
Previous discussions with the Marathon organizers firmly suggested that it would never happen. However, early that year, we’d produced Oohos for the half Marathon to much support from runners and press. So Lucozade successfully pitched for an Ooho station for the London Marathon the same year. Almost 40,000 Oohos were made for the event — to date that’s the most we’ve ever produced for one event.
With bigger projects and investments supporting us, we felt it was time to find a new identity that better represented what we do. We worked with Super Union, a branding agency to work on a concept. We decided to go with Notpla, soft-launching the new brand in time for the marathon. Notpla, Not PLA, Not Plastic, a simple way of representing what we are striving for. Since then our aims have been to bring our products to as many events, companies and industries as possible.
Under a new name and image as a multi-product company, we began to look for more investors. The aim of this investment round was to finalise the industrialisation and begin commercialisation of our three main product lines. All the funds we chose to work with are impact funds that share our ethos and a focus on sustainability. We partnered with two funds who supported our venture, Lupa Systems and Astanor. With a total of £4 million raised, we were set up to realise our plans, alongside an interesting and diverse group of new connections and supporters.
Scaling up Ketchup and Mayo Sachets with a sauce manufacturer and a delivery service
We partnered with Just Eat and Unilever to develop some ketchup and mayo sachets at a bigger scale. It was a really exciting period as it was the first time we were bringing a sauce manufacturer in the mix. It took some time to validate all the health and safety requirements that big companies have, but we finally got them on board. At this point, we were making the first industrial Alpha machines, our first machines dedicated to making sauces. These machines had been developed with the help of a grant, and it was satisfying to see them running for this kind of collaboration: no more one-off event, we were producing 10 000 units of Ketchup per week!
Various restaurants in London tested our sachets and we collected feedback. Consumers were extremely pleased with it, embarking on the journey to make packaging disappear. But we must admit that restaurants were not super responsive because most of them were not necessary eco-warriors so it was hard for them to engage with the product.
The Unilever team was really happy with the consumer response and they started to pull together a business case to get traction from the rest of the business. Unfortunately, as Covid hit, they had to focus on supply chain issues and the Ooho sachet project was deprioritized.
Closing a new round of investment during Covid
At the end of 2019, we had landed the 2 lead investors, Lupa and Astanor, for doing our seed grant. But the way we had structured our seed grant was to bring a few other funds as well. And we had just 3-4 months to close the round. In December 2019 we raised 2 million out of the 4 million that we wanted to raise. There were rumours of Covid around then, so investors were a bit reluctant to put money on the table. Lockdown started in March and we were still had 2 million to found.
One of the funds that wanted to invest dropped their offer, so we were finding ourselves in a hole in our funding. More importantly, two of our investors stepped up their offer and we were able to raise the full 4 million! So we closed our round in April 2020, one month after the beginning of the lockdown! We were pleased to receive a great level of support from our existing investors, they were definitely still believing in the business despite the tough context.
Mixed feelings during the pandemic
Like many businesses, the pandemic put a hold on our plans.
Just before lockdown arrived in London, we moved to our new and current office in Hackney Wick.
As always, we build everything ourselves, from walls to furniture, with our Kingston squad.
Once we moved we started to put the machines together and we restructured the team. We realised that it will take some time for Oohos to restart as there were no more events happening, so we reallocated some of the engineers to films and coating. We also have been lucky to have been awarded Innovate UK grants to maintain and industrialise our R&D programme.
It was a frustrating time because we had just raised some ambitions to grow the team but we had to freeze the hires for a year. The period was challenging because without events happening, we weren’t able to showcase how much we were growing and progressing.
But this crisis also boosted conversation around the importance of a plastic-free future. Many businesses were suddenly convinced that sustainability needed to be embedded in their DNA.
There was a boom in E-commerce and they were a huge change in term of how much packaging brands had to deal with. For many brands, it was critical to have packaging that aligned to their values.
We also noted a rise in interest from cosmetic and hygiene brands. Many cosmetics industries approached us aiming to reduce their packaging use. With a few selected partners, we are currently doing some trials for toothpaste, toiletries and shampoo. Our solutions include both insoluble and soluble packaging!
A start-up within the start-up
As we restructured the team, we saw this opportunity of creating a “Special Projects department” within the team, for people to explore early-stage solutions that could either help us to learn about new technologies, explore new materials or formats that could replace plastics.
This “start-up within the start-up” was giving us the flexibility to explore projects differently than the way Oohos and coating projects were framed. Few brands responded well to these Special Projects, bringing value to the company.
We also started to think of our journey from lab to commercialisation. Up until then, it was really specific to one project. We realised they were a framework for us to move things on a technical readiness scale and a commercial readiness scale. Our ambition was to become expert at that kind of jump, to be able to do it for any projects that we are inventing.
We formed some squads that were able to tackle projects from each of its different angles. Each team were composed of a research chemist, a development chemist, a designer, an engineer, a tech and a commercial person.
Revolutionizing the food-service industry with our seaweed coating and takeaway boxes
As Notpla developed, we used our seaweed-based technology to challenge other applications of plastic. We started to make a lot of progress with coating: 100% biodegradable, our coating provides a greaseproof and water-resistant barrier for paper products.
Unlike Oohos, there were technologies existing in the outside world, so we could just bring our materials and use these infrastructures without creating new dedicated machines. It was the dream scenario of having a much bigger impact by using existing machines and just changing the material. To do that, we had to change our formulation to make sure many infrastructures could use our material.
We developed a coated takeaway box made from a board that incorporates agricultural grass waste, without the typical synthetic additives that other common boards may have! And of course, the box was coated with our innovative seaweed lining.
Initially, we explored the design of the boxes as part of our partnership with Just Eat. Just Eat patiently worked with us through each of the stages and it took us a couple of years to arrive where we are now. The key element for them what to do something that we could scale easily. With 200,000 restaurants on their platforms, they wanted something that was going to be applicable on 26 countries.
We did our first trial with them in Q2 2021, providing 30,000 boxes to a various restaurants in London. Consumers were super excited, the trial was a success. As a result, Just Eat agreed to buy more boxes, offering us more negotiating power when we were discussing with manufacturers.We are now excited to launch these takeaway food boxes with Just Eat Takeaway.com, in the UK. These boxes will also be on the European continent early in 2022!
Watch our magic instant-coffee film disappear in your drink!
We are currently exploring other exciting innovations, among them are flexible films.
We’ve always been interested in developing one day a product that could be heat sealable, enabling us to use the same machine as the one currently used by plastic.
We embarked on a journey, trying a bunch of formulations that were heat sealable, with plants or seaweed extracts.
We also started to test commercially our proposition. Not only our films are a packaging alternative for dry products that are currently in plastic sachets, they are also creating new experiences! Some can dissolve into hot water, others could add a fragrance. Our films are doing more than just package your products, they also have a magical aspect!
Applications include packaging for hygiene, cleaning products such as detergents or pre-portioned foods such as pasta, coffee and drink flavourings. So we are now engaging with actors that are not only from the food industry.
We completed successful lab trials and we are currently working on scaling up the process with several commercial partners.
Seaweed Paper, transforming a wasted resource into a quality product
We also recently developed a seaweed fiber paper made from the by-products of the company’s industrial processes. This seaweed paper requires 30% less wood pulp than conventional paper, lowering pressure on forests while reducing waste from the seaweed supply chain, making it a first-class sustainable solution.
We are collaborating with fashion and luxury brands to develop premium sustainable solutions for secondary packaging such as boxes, envelopes or sleeves.
Say no to plastic sachets with our Pipettes
Our pipettes is the last product added to our portfolio, it is the world’s first seaweed packaging for single-dose oil.
Designed for home meal kits, restaurants and takeaways, our Pipettes replace plastic sachets. There are 100% natural, home-compostable, and vegan! They’re even edible too…if you’re really hungry!
Securing £10M to accelerate our mission to make packaging disappear
This is now a really exciting time for Notpla!
This month, we just closed a £10 million Series A financing round led by Horizons Ventures, with participation from existing investors Astanor Ventures, Lupa Systems and Torch Capital.
This fund will accelerate the commercialization of our Oohos and Notpla coating, and will support the industrialization of new innovative Notpla products, including flexible films and paper:
So while this funding will allow us to go even further, fundamentally our team, and our mission remains the same. “We are delighted to accelerate the pace towards a zero single-use plastic future. This new round coupled with soon-to-be-announced commercial partnerships is the perfect opportunity to put seaweed on the map of packaging solutions” said Pierre