In 2016, Nuha Siddiqui was an environmental economics student at the University of Toronto when she came across a study estimating that by 2050 there will be more plastics than fish in the world’s oceans. That news spurred Nuha to partner with two other students, plant biology specialist Kritika Tyagi and engineering expert Chang Dong, to attempt the development of a material that functions like plastic but doesn’t damage the environment.
It was a daunting task, to be sure. But the group was committed.
The team's ultimate innovation was a resin made from plant waste. However, unlike most compostable plastics that are made from plant matter, this one doesn’t require industrial-level composting to disintegrate. It’s nontoxic and can go directly into a residential compost pile where it breaks down after only a few days. It’s so safe, in fact, it can be eaten. (Yes, you read that correctly. Indeed, Nuha has been known to personally demonstrate this culinary aptitude in business meetings.)
The team originally named the company EcoPackers because, at the time, they were solely targeting the replacement of plastic packaging. As the business has grown, however, it's become clear that packaging is only one application for their solution. In light of a global market and rising demand for plastics alternatives beyond packaging, the team recently rebranded the company from “EcoPackers” to “erthos.” The new name is a portmanteau of “earth” and “ethos,” reflecting the company’s earth-first mission and commitment to sustainability, while indicating that it isn’t limited to packaging alone.
The company has gained access to additional verticals because its product was strategically designed to be manufactured using the same production processes employed for plastics.The alternative erthos has created replaces toxic polypropylene, polyethylene, and polystyrene right on the production line—increasing the likelihood plastics manufacturers would adopt the solution.
Recently, erthos executed its first two product pilots, commissioned by one of the world’s largest brewers, and has grown to a team of 20 since the company launched in 2019, when Bee Partners invested in their very first round of capital. The company is planning to launch its first commercial product, a single-use plastic, later this year.
We recently caught up with the team to talk to them about their business trajectory, their new brand, and creating a new “normal” of positive environmental impact.
How did your team discover its IP, and that agricultural waste could produce a bioplastic comparable in quality to regular plastic?
The company began as a research project at the University of Toronto. We used what was accessible to us as students to research what we were passionate about: turning science into a sustainable material. Coming from different backgrounds, we wanted to find a way to develop materials that provide a solution to the existing plastic industry. We tried and failed many different types of prototypes and business models and we eventually found one that responded to what manufacturers need: a compatible and compostable resin. Using agricultural by-products was a natural discovery for our team to ensure we were building truly sustainable materials.
Going forward, is erthos’ product just a commodity? What is the long-term path for scale and commercialization?
Our goal has always been to develop scalable technologies that improve our environment. This is a big goal, but it’s one that we plan to reach by working alongside plastic manufacturers, governments, and brands. We are setting ourselves up to successfully develop innovative materials that can be accessible through multiple platforms (licensing, in-house manufacturing, co-product collaborations). The last thing we ever want is to build innovative technology that's limited to one geography or one industry. Our vision is to scale our solution into multiple levels of the supply chain to ensure all single-use plastics can be plant-powered.
Tell us about the inspiration surrounding the new erthos branding.
Like most startups, when we first launched under the name EcoPackers, we were still discovering our users. We were focused on one product and one platform, with the hopes of it making a positive impact on the planet. But in the past year alone, our users and solutions have expanded across multiple industries, allowing us to truly understand the potential of our compatible and compostable products for partners on every level. Our new brand, erthos, is more than just a new name. It represents a belief system that puts our earth first. With rising consumer costs to the planet, our new brand reflects an even stronger commitment to create a clean plastics future. In addition to our new multi-platform solution, we have launched a new standard to better identify the products developed through our emerging plant-based alternatives. We’re honored to continue building innovative technology to drive a plastic-free evolution for current and future generations.
What branding advice would you give to other startups that are early in their corporate lifecycle? Is there anything you wish you had known or thought about relative to your branding when you started out?
We'd recommend rebranding the sooner the better, since rebranding becomes part of your story and what you really stand for. I would encourage founders in the early stage to try to frequently take a step back and reflect on their purpose, scope and messaging for the company. Ask questions like, "Does this name actually make sense? What do people actually think of when they hear about us for the first time?"
As founders we tend to put our heads down and focus on iterating our product or meeting milestones for the company, but we forget to iterate our brand to align with our new learnings and vision for the company. In some cases, the brand you start with ends up being the same brand you scale with. However, it's important to ask yourself those questions early on when you're rapidly changing.
For us, since we hope to influence our world and plastics pollution, and we want to take a leading role in that shift and the zero-waste economy, we need a strong brand to represent that. It felt like it took us a while to get to that point, where we had an identity that fit and that could incorporate what we wanted for our future. But being in the space has helped us take a more leading role in the ecosystem. We actually rebranded fairly early in our Seed stage, and we’re glad we did, instead of waiting until we were more recognized in our industry.
How did your R&D in China, and staying close to key plastic manufacturers and early pilots, help you as you now launch North American pilots?
As a Canadian startup that leverages the existing manufacturing industry for our technology, we knew early on that we needed to build a solution that was universally accepted. China, one of the largest markets for plastics, was an opportunity for our company to rapid prototype and receive user feedback. This has allowed us to understand our market needs across the entire supply chain, and has provided credibility and validation as we grow in North America.
You have a strong growth trajectory and a clear and urgent mandate. What’s next for the company?
With current shifts in the industry, our top priority is more collaboration with all of our users, both brands and manufacturers, making sure we’re creating seamless integration for truly sustainable single-use plastics.
Second is spearheading environmental awareness campaigns. We want to play a part in actually educating our users and general consumers on the evolution of plastics and where bioplastics are headed: how we can truly understand the materials, what the bio-plastic end-of-life looks like and what its impact on our planet is. We want to make it easier to navigate through the complex zero-waste landscape.
Alongside that active role in environment awareness comes transparency with environmental metrics, providing real numbers and real impact for every product that we launch.
2021 is also the year we launch our first 100 percent compostable and plant-based alternative for single-use plastic. Stay tuned!
Earthos is hiring!
About Bee Partners
Founded in 2009, Bee Partners is a pre-Seed venture capital firm that partners with revolutionary Founders working at the forefront of human-machine convergence across technologies that include robotics, AI, voice, i4.0, and synthetic biology. The firm leverages a singular approach to detecting new and emerging patterns of business as well as inside access to fertile but often overlooked entrepreneurial ecosystems to identify early opportunity in large, untapped markets. Bee’s portfolio companies consistently realize growth at levels that outstrip industry averages and secure follow-on capital from the world's top VCs.