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.
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.
Skipping Rock Lab was born!
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!
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.Finally, we also started our partnership with Sky, who had begun their Ocean Fund to help solutions such as ours. With this support, we could justify working on different solutions, such as double coatings and netting.
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 Astenor. 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.
A new mindset emerging from the pandemic
And then 2020 happened, and 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.
We made huge adjustments this year, relocating production teams to new projects as demands for our products at events have been very low. We have also been lucky to have been awarded Innovate UK grants to maintain and industrialise our R&D programme.
In the short term, this pandemic has drastically increased the use of single-use plastics. But it was exciting to observe that this crisis had also boosted conversation around the importance of a plastic-free future.
For instance, we 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!
Launching our Notpla coating
As Notpla developed, our seaweed-based technology has been used to challenge other applications of plastic. In 2021, we launched a Notpla coating to replace the thin layer of plastic applied to cardboard boxes for takeaway food. Our coating is 100% biodegradable. It provides a greaseproof and water-resistant barrier for paper products. 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, it is coated with our innovative seaweed lining.
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!
Other innovations are currently being explored, such as flexible films and seaweed paper! Stay tuned, we’ll share more information on these products pretty soon.