We caught up with Pierre Paslier Founder of Notpla as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Notpla create innovative packaging solutions from Seaweed that disappear naturally.
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great 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 this far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Pierre: I’m Pierre Paslier, I’m one of the co-founders of Notpla, a sustainable packaging solutions start-up based in London. We develop alternatives to single-use plastic for packaging applications, mainly using seaweed as a material instead of plastic, which is something that is both really exciting and also very unique in the packaging world. We have been running since 2014 when I started working on this with my co-founder straight out of our Masters’ at Imperial. The first couple of years we were thinking about how we can bring this to market and then in 2017, we started a crowdfunding campaign and we started getting some momentum around that time.
We currently develop 3 main product lines; the first one which we call ‘OOHO’ is a little bubble that can contain water or different liquids; which is natural, biodegradable, and even edible. We have found good applications for OOHO in sport events like marathons, festivals with alcohol and also with takeaway for condiments like ketchup and mayo. It’s a bit like fruit, where it has a short shelf life, and we have had to develop both the material and the machines to make it work for having the impact that we want it to have.
We have also developed a coating that is applied onto cardboard for food boxes, which are typically coated with a film of plastic that makes them impossible to recycle. This is focused on the hot food takeaway markets, where things typically need to only be used for a few hours and the plastic stays around for hundreds of years. The final product in the line is a film that is transparent and heat sealable, which is applicable to many industries, but we are focusing on dry products that do not require plastic packaging – this can be made completely soluble so it can be washed down in the sink and would completely disappear.
In terms of where we are at right now, we are currently a team of 25 across chemistry, engineering, design, business development and production, and we have raised a total of £5.4 million.
Pierre: I met my co-founder, Rodrigo, during a Masters’ called Innovation & Design Engineering at Imperial College and Royal College of Arts. The product really started during that time as a bit of a personal exploration around the theme of packaging things like nature would, a bit like recreating fruits, and so we started prototyping in Rodrigo’s kitchen using things we would order online trying to copy some molecular gastronomy recipes and trying to read some old patterns from the food industry. We didn’t really think at the time that it would work with the limited gear and setup that we had but we made the first prototypes of OOHO relatively quickly. It was cool because everything we were using was essentially food ingredients, so it was possible to eat the bubbles, although at the beginning they were weak and salty but the intention was there, and so we wrapped up the project in a video that went viral, to our surprise. People were not just interested in the concept, but also the fact that it was resonating with them in terms of being an alternative to plastic, which was when we first thought that our product could have a pretty big impact.
We also realised that if we didn’t do it that it wasn’t the PepsiCo’s of this world that would be making the effort to research this, so we felt a responsibility to give it a shot. We then embarked on the start-up journey having never thought that we would be entrepreneurs with support from Imperial and Innovate UK. From there we started working with chemists and chemical engineers to improve the product and how we could manufacture in a more robust way, and eventually realised the different applications it would work for such as the marathons and festivals and later on for takeaways.
Pierre: I think that we’ve been super hands on with everything, so it has kept us quite grounded, we haven’t used any external recruiting except for one role, so we’ve really done things ourselves and mainly tried to find people that we want to work with. I think that we’ve ended up creating a team that is quite young and doesn’t necessarily come with years and years of experience in all the industries that we are trying to disrupt, which I think is adding value at this stage because we can really think differently and it’s normal to not know and to learn. This has allowed us to really have a pioneering attitude, but it is hard to know who is going to be good at that because it’s not one of the things you can read on a CV.
So I think a lot of it has been based on the general human factor and also I think that one of the things corporates still don’t get is around the motivations of the person and the ability to collaborate with people.
We’ve found people that are very talented at what they do, and they’ve turned down jobs with big multi-nationals that are paying 3 times what we can afford to spend, and they still choose to work with us because our culture resonates with them and motivates them to get out of bed and they can clearly see the results of their work.
Pierre: So it’s been really hands-on, it’s a physical product, so you have to make it and you have to sell it. It’s not something you can just upload on the app store and see if people across the world start using your app. So at the beginning, we got in with small groups of runners that we’d meet in Hyde Park and we would come in with a foldable table and organise an impromptu hydration station and try out different products and try to get feedback.
We managed to get Selfridges to let us have a cart in the food court for a month to sell things like ginger shots and cordials, as well as festivals and other areas testing different products to see what was working and what was not. Eventually, we realised that there was something really interesting in places where there was a lot of instant consumption, and there was also something exciting about the experience of having an OOHO. We did this campaign with the Glenlivet Whiskey company in 2019 and the video that they made went viral. We were serving the OOHOs at a bar in Old Street and there was a 2-hour queue for the whole week and the bartenders told us that people flew from India to come and test the product. The key is to test with real, never met before people and keep improving the product experience based on what works.
Pierre: I think the main challenges have been about scaling-up, because we had to make a physical product, so it’s hard to get things right. We started with OOHO which was hard because we had to develop the material and also develop the machine which we had to design and build ourselves, so it was a double challenge. With the coating and the film, we decided to try to work with existing manufacturing technologies that we could find with external partners and bring our materials to their machines. The difficult thing about this was that sometimes you have to wait months to get access to their machines and things don’t always go to plan, especially working with natural products. On that front, it is the industrialisation that takes time, but hopefully, once you’re there it’s faster to reproduce this in other places.
In terms of commercialisation, it’s been such a volatile few years because when we started, it was pre-Blue Planet 2 and there was no emotional attachment to plastic, it was just a fact that people knew, but clean-tech was just things like solar panels. Then came this big wave with sky ocean rescue and David Attenborough. It was incredible to see how people were seriously beginning to feel attached to the plastic program which moved a lot of the commercial conversations with big companies to something a bit more practical, whereas before it was like the innovation circus, where you show them something and they say they will present to their board and you never hear anything. Last year was the big reset button, where everyone was in crisis mode and it was very hard for innovation in general and you needed a bit of willingness to test something different, especially for packaging where people are definitely convinced that we need to be sustainable in society. Things like PPE, which have been so important have led to a step back, which is hopefully just a phase which will come to an end and we can resume the global effort to a more sustainable society.
Pierre: I think there is always timing involved in these things, and the hardest thing to accept is that with all the hard work and the passion you have, you are not in control of the timings. Sometimes things will go one way or the other, but we have been quite lucky as we were well prepared. There isn’t necessarily a recipe which can be repeated over and over again. The fact that our first product was a very different, eye-catching proposition that really connected with everyone made for quite a good set-up for crowdfunding. This is because everyone has at some point had a bottle of water or thrown away a plastic cup, so there was something really universal about the message and something quite exciting about the solution. I think that crowdfunding is hard when your idea is complex and people aren’t knowledgeable about the issue. With us it was really ready to go viral on social media, but the reality is that before this we had spent a year trying to go with angels and high net worth and everyone was saying no and so we really had to go through crowdfunding in order to build a reputation for the product. Not that it got easier after that, we had to prove the track record, so people could see that it was continuing to grow. As long as you keep developing the R&D as you progress, people are more inclined to support you at the later stages.
The real difficulty is getting that first raise that supports the track record for the product. I hope that the millions that goes towards all the companies raising seed and seed A also goes to some of these companies that are at a really early-stage and just need a chance to prove what they can do.
In a way, one of our investors has a smaller fund, so they can’t invest in tons of start-ups, but they have invested in many companies with smaller ticket size, but with a good seal of approval and potential to create something. I think that is feeding the rest of the eco-system with a lot of companies that are definitely working on something that truly has an impact. Specifically for us, when we started with the crowdfunding, we borrowed the first sort of £150k through a tax incentive scheme, which is great, because it made it easier to start as it didn’t matter if people invested because they believed in you or for tax breaks, because any help is great.
We are certainly still at the beginning of our journey and have a lot of uphill battles ahead of us to have the impact we want, so we are now the ones asking for advice from people who have done the next rounds and stages, so I wouldn’t say that we have got ourselves in a final, comfortable spot just yet.
Thank you for taking the time to introduce your company and I look forward to seeing how you develop!