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Product | People | Potential – our chat with Naturbeads

We caught up with Giovanna Laudisio, CEO & a Co-Founder of Naturbeads as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Naturbeads can transform cellulose into a spherical shape and are the only company that can compete with plastic microbeads at performance and price. Starting with a focus on cosmetics, the Naturbeads team soon realised how many applications microbeads can have.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Imogen @ ADLIB: Hi Giovanna, how are you? Please could you introduce yourself and Naturbeads?

Giovanna: Hello, my name is Giovanna, and I am the CEO and Co-Founder of Naturbeads. Our business is commercialising a technology that was developed by my two Co-Founders at the University of Bath to transform cellulose which is a natural biopolymer and is usually available in fibres.

We transform it into a spherical shape so that we can replace plastic microbeads that are used in many applications.

Many people are aware that microbeads are used in cosmetics, but we are trying to increase the awareness that plastic microbeads are also used in larger applications like paint, oil, and gas and in tanneries. There are many other applications where microbeads are used, and they can potentially end up in the environment. We know that plastic is not biodegradable so our offer is unique because we are the only company that can make cellulose in spherical form at price that is competitive with plastic microbeads.

Imogen @ ADLIB: That’s great and will answer so many environmental problems. Could you share the story behind the origin?

Giovanna: Yes, my two Co-Founders are both Professors at the University of Bath. One is an expert in Process Engineering and the other in Biopolymer Chemistry. They were working on different projects on how to use cellulose in different applications and because my Co-Founder Janet had worked with big cosmetic companies like Unilever, she was well aware of the use of microbeads in cosmetics. This was around 2016/2017 and they knew that there was an active ban in cosmetic microbeads in the US and it would be happening in the UK. My Co-Founders thought it would be a good idea to create an alternative to plastic microbeads and when they published their paper in 2017, they received positive feedback and requests. From this they knew there was an interest in this product

Imogen @ ADLIB: It is amazing how many different applications cellulose can have. I also had no idea of how many applications microbeads were used in, or the scale!

Giovanna: We started with the idea of cosmetics but then we started receiving request to use our beads in many other applications.

You cannot imagine the type of applications that we receive requests for like replacing floam; I didn’t even know what floam is!

It is an artistic foam that is made of large beads of polystyrene. At the moment we cannot replace polystyrene but there is an interest because polystyrene is also very polluting and cannot be recycled everywhere.

Imogen @ ADLIB: What are the challenges you have faced, are facing, or are anticipating around growing your team?

Giovanna: The challenges we have are related to recruiting the right people. We have a highly technical business, so it is definitely challenging. At the moment I think it is challenging for many companies to hire the right candidates. We have a great team and we have been lucky because the fact we address a big environmental issue usually means we attract people who want to join the company because they want to make an impact.

Imogen @ ADLIB: How are Naturbeads approaching product market fit?

Giovanna: The product market fit for us has been in the design of the product from the beginning. For most technologies coming from universities, there is a technology that comes first and then you look for an application. With Naturbeads, my Co-Founders started with the idea of offering an alternative to plastic microbeads, so the beads had a market fit with the application in cosmetics. What has been interesting in our journey has been realising that there are more applications that we didn’t even realise.

Imogen @ ADLIB: What has been the most obscure application? I can’t believe that some companies use microbeads in cell-made meat!

Giovanna: Yes, we regularly receive requests from agriculture to biopharma and so there is a really broad range. We are working with another start-up, Cellular Agriculture and a professor from the University of Bath for application of our beads as cell scaffolding for cultured meat. Cells don’t grow by themselves, they need support. Because cellulose is edible it has potential to be used forcell growth. Cellulose is also natural and can be scaled at lower costs so it has many characteristics that could enable businesses such as cultured meat, cultured fat and other biotechnology applications to scale.

Imogen @ ADLIB: It is great that you are working with another start-up and that you can support each other. Could you discuss the barriers you overcame to create spherical cellulose?

Giovanna: The biggest challenge is scaling up and our technology requires a lot of capital. We have to build new equipment to scale the production and so it is a chicken and egg situation; if you cannot find the capital, you cannot scale and if you cannot scale, you cannot demonstrate that the technology works. I think capital is a problem for many technologies coming from chemistry and engineering. 

Imogen @ ADLIB: That links to our final question: investment can often be a challenge for start-ups and scale-ups. Are there any tips you could give regarding best approach to investment?

Giovanna: Truly, prepare for a long process! It takes a very long time so if you expect everything to close in six months, double the time to make sure you have enough cashflow for the time being. Speak with many investors as from my experience, most investors are very specialised and for technology like ours we need to speak to investors who understand the potential and the risks. I would select investors based on their portfolio and don’t approach those that invest in completely different sectors. There are no databases for all the investors around, it takes time just to select the right investors for your technology.

Thank you for your time, Giovanna!