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Trading in Plastic for Kelp: Startups Exploring New Biodegradable Plastics

When it comes to plastics, the figures aren’t favorable. Currently, there is a need for roughly eight percent of the world’s oil to produce plastics. Almost half of this is for disposable use, and billions of pounds of plastic reach our oceans annually. This environmental issue has been growing progressively for years, and there is a desperate need for new biodegradable plastic solutions. Because if no solutions come, there will be more plastic in our waters than fish within a few decades. Fortunately, many startups are trying to tackle this problem, and funding is beginning to support their efforts.

Currently, the biggest issue surrounding the plastics in the world involves single-use plastics. Startup companies seeking to address this problem are pursuing a number of different strategies. While each is considering new biodegradable plastic models, one is perhaps the most intriguing: the notion of making plastic from algae and kelp (better known as seaweed). If this type of plastic winds up in the ocean, it simply returns to its original habitat. This is why plastic from algae is so appealing as a new biodegradable plastic option.

(Read more about algae farming for a sustainable future.) 

Key Startups Exploring Plastic from Algae

Companies investigating how to make plastic from algae are not necessarily new. Bold Business reported on these developments nearly two years prior when spotlighting startup companies like Evoware. Evoware has developed several new biodegradable plastic products as well as some edible ones. For example, they offer edible wrappers made with plastics from algae for burger wraps, coffee sachets, and dry seasoning packets. Being based in Indonesia, Evoware knows the detrimental impact single-use plastics have on our oceans. It’s a major reason why they are aggressively pursuing new biodegradable plastic solutions.

(You might also want to know more about Biodegradable Beer Can Holders.) 

Evoware is certainly not alone. Several other startups are also exploring how to create plastics from algae and kelp. For instance, Notpla (formerly Skipping Rock Labs) might be best known for their edible capsules used by whiskey companies. But these capsules are made with plastic from algae and are currently being used for food condiment packaging. Algotek, started by students from the University of Oregon, is creating rigid plastic from algae. Their new biodegradable plastic is made by compressing kelp pellets into a rigid form. And Loliware, a New York-based startup, has raised $6 million to develop new biodegradable plastics. Their product list now includes straws, lids, cups, and utensils.

Plastic from Algae Is Not the Only Solution

Certainly, the environmental impact that plastics have serves as motivation for a number of startups. But increasingly, these companies are being funded because it not only is sustainable for the environment but financially as well. And this goes well beyond plastics from algae into a number of other new biodegradable plastic options. In fact, funding for this entire category of startups now exceeds $850 million today. And these companies are located throughout the world making their international presence known.

Zume is among the largest of these companies in terms of funding support. Originally a startup focused on robotic pizza delivery, Zume has now dedicated its efforts to new biodegradable plastic development. It has raised roughly $423 million toward these efforts. Other startups like Tipa (Israeli-based) and RWDC Industries (Singapore-based) have developed compostable plastic products. Both have raised around $40 million in venture capital funding. And TemperPack has developed a new biodegradable plastic used for insulation. Replacing the need for Styrofoam, it has raised $33 million. Thus, it seems clear that many investors perceive new biodegradable plastic as the future.

Challenges Remain but the Future Is Bright

There are advances in the development of new biodegradable plastics, but that doesn’t mean that there are no obstacles. For one, existing manufacturing systems and supply chains for plastics are highly efficient and scaled. This doesn’t currently exist for plastic from algae or other sustainable materials. Likewise, many of these new biodegradable plastic products cost more to produce, and this cost more for consumers. And naturally, getting used to new types of packaging materials represents social and cultural barriers to an extent. In order for these companies to succeed long-term, there has to be a way to address these issues effectively.

Fortunately, these startups developing plastic from algae and other sustainable materials are getting some support. In addition to recent increases in funding, major corporations are committing to using new biodegradable plastics. For example, Kellogg plans to be using completely renewable, reusable, and compostable materials by 2025. Walmart has stated it would do the same for its privately-labeled products. And Unilever has indicated it hopes to cut its non-sustainable plastic use in half by 2025. Given these developments and adequate funding support, these startups should be able to make significant headway. And in the process, we may just realize that kelp is a much more versatile plant than we ever realized.

The Entrepreneurial Bubble: Convincing Founders to Invest in Mental Health Management

The statistics on business founders and mental health issues have been known to be rather concerning. Bold Business reported on just how frequent founder depression can occur (see: Founder Depression: A Side Effect of the Entrepreneurial Bubble). Roughly half of all entrepreneurs will have some type of mental health issue during their lifetime. While mental health management is gaining some momentum, a bigger challenge exists among entrepreneurs. Even among companies that acknowledge the impact and frequency of entrepreneur depression, obstacles are often present. These barriers do not involve the provision of services themselves. Instead, the biggest hurdle relates to founders and business owners themselves.

In other words, the water is being provided, but getting them to drink it has been difficult. Exploring this phenomenon is thus a worthwhile endeavor if entrepreneur depression is to be better controlled.

Unique Mental Health Management for Unique Individuals

When we consider what it takes to be an entrepreneur, the pressures that are often experienced along the way become readily apparent. For one, the founders of companies are inherently risk-takers, which raises the stakes from the start. At the same time, entrepreneurs have incredibly high expectations of themselves and their ability to achieve. So, when things do not go as they have planned, the potential for a “let-down” is tremendous. This basic scenario that depicts so many founders accounts in part for the high risk of entrepreneur depression. Yet, that is only one piece of the complex puzzle with which we are dealing.

RELATED: Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

On the flip side of this coin involves the ability to recognize when one needs help. Indeed, the personality traits of many entrepreneurs and the high-pressure environment increase the risk of mental health issues. But at that initial moment these issues emerge, it is critical that mental health management be pursued. Denial, embarrassment and even shame are common emotions associated with anyone with mental health problems. However, these are even more profound among entrepreneurs who inherently refuse to admit weakness. For this group, acknowledging personal weakness is the equivalent to failed commitment and perseverance. And this factor plays a significant role in why many founders avoid mental health management services.

Recognizing Entrepreneur Depression and Doing Something About It

Given the inherent resistance among founders to seek help, some venture capital companies are taking matters into their own hands. Specifically, several are implementing various mental health management programs to help those with entrepreneur depression or help prevent its occurrence. By committing resources in this way, these companies can aid in minimizing, if not eliminate, the negative effects of the said condition. At the same time, such mental health management services raise awareness about how common entrepreneur depression actually is. With this in mind, we share the following examples of these types of venture capital company programs.

RELATED: Venture Capitalist Funders and The Evolving Startup Investment World

  • Builder Venture Capital – Founder and General Partner Jim Kim pursued an in-house therapist to assist with mental health management. In an effort to promote participation, the program puts stock in anonymity, which has been a key feature that reduces many barriers related to stigma. Some success has been realized with demand steadily on the rise.
  • Starting Line – This venture capital firm operates out of Chicago, and its founder, Ezra Galston, launched it. As part of the firm’s commitment to mental health management, subsidies are allocated toward founders’ well-being. Particularly, resources are offered for forced introspection and personal advancement. In this way, conditions like entrepreneur depression can be reduced.
  • Felicis Ventures – This venture capital firm has adopted founder development services as part of its organizational practices. Partner Dasha Maggio helped launch a “1 Percent Program”, where 1 percent of the money funded supports mental health management. This allotted fund is to be used to address issues like entrepreneur depression and the overall stress of starting a business.

Keeping Momentum in Mental Health Management

Each of these programs is innovative and timely in terms of offering mental health management services to founders. Yet, concurrent with this fact, they remain somewhat limited in both scope and outreach. As noted, getting entrepreneurs to take advantage of these services is difficult. In addition to a busy schedule and a lack of awareness, entrepreneurs and founders recognize the notable social stigma associated with mental health disorders. And if you’re an entrepreneur trying to make a big splash, the last thing you need is being labeled as deficient in some way.

In the end, raising awareness about entrepreneur depression and similar conditions is essential. Likewise, venture capital firms, as well as other companies supporting founders must help. The programs in mental health management cited here are certainly to be commended in their efforts. Still, more can and should be done in this regard. By providing entrepreneurs the tools they need, companies can help them—thus enabling them to more likely succeed along the way. And in the long run, that is beneficial not only to them but also to their businesses and society as a whole.