In today’s episode of Hardware to Save a Planet, Dylan talks to Insiya Jafferjee about the role Shellworks in reimagining sustainable alternatives to plastic use cases. They delve into unique and environmentally beneficial product concepts and designs used by Shellworks to address the issue of plastic waste holistically and contextually.
Insiya is the CEO of Shellworks, a company comprising a team of scientists, engineers, and designers focusing on reimagining the future of packaging by working with nature. Before founding Shellworks, Insiya worked at Apple as a Manufacturing Design Engineer, where she learned to appreciate quality designs that improve people’s lives and are produced at a massive scale.
Shellworks introduced a plastic that was created using bacteria that are common in soil and marine environments. Insiya adds that when you discard a product made of Vivomer, bacteria that live in the soil and ocean perceive it as food and consume it, allowing it to decompose in nature without requiring additional infrastructure.
Insiya reveals the rationale for Shellworks’ current emphasis on cosmetics products. According to Insiya, the beauty industry is likely one of the leading offenders of plastic pollution. Shellworks aims to provide them with sustainable packaging solutions that are petroleum-free, truly compostable, and “perform like plastic” but decompose in about a year, all at a good cost and scale without compromising aesthetics and performance.
If you want to learn more about how the future of plastics is being redesigned through biodegradable and compostable solutions, check out the key takeaways of this episode or the transcript below.
- 4:13 – 5:01 – The Problem is not Plastic: The fact that plastics are fantastic materials does not make them a problem itself; rather, their use has not always been optimal. Because of its durability, improper use of plastic is the true root of the issue. According to Insiya, adding other materials to the mix can help lessen the impact of this problem and start appreciating plastic for what it is truly good at—having a long lifespan.
- 6:02 – 7:41 – Shellworks are Specifically looking at Alternative Materials: They developed a material called “Vivomer” that can break down in any natural environment without generating harmful microplastics.
- 13:24 – 14:57 – Why is Shellworks starting with the Beauty Industry: Since there are few alternatives to plastic in the beauty and personal care sector, Shellworks’ current focus is on providing sustainable packaging solutions, rebuilding complex multi-material assemblies like “lipsticks” that are now unrecyclable to be created from a single biodegradable material
- 24:09 – 25:47 – Using Education to Realize an End Benefit: While there is no quick fix for the plastic waste problem, Shellworks is working to be very open and transparent about what is happening and why, and they are collaborating with partners and clients who are fully supportive to help spread that message to their end users.
- 31:53 – 33:37 – The Biggest Challenge and Approach of Shellworks Innovation: The biggest challenge is developing a formula and tooling that work together to produce a product-at-scale that meets standards for quality, aesthetics, and degree of performance without compromise. The philosophy of Shellworks is to create lovely items that people want to keep and don’t have to throw away nearly quickly.
Dylan: Hello and welcome to Hardware to Save a Planet. I’m excited to be talking today with Insiya Jafferjee, co-founder and CEO of Shellworks. We’ll be talking about what Insiya’s company is doing to make plastic waste a thing of the past by developing an offering, a sustainable alternative.
I’m really glad to be focused on this because plastic is amazing in so many ways and we rely on it in almost every facet of life, it’s also all kinds of bad. Less than 10% of plastic used globally gets recycled, and the rest ends up polluting the environment one way or another. Then plastics production is responsible for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, if we could reduce our dependence on plastics, the planet would thank us.
To introduce Insiya quickly, her background is a blend of design, manufacturing, engineering, and entrepreneurship. She plays at a really high level in all of them. She’s worked in engineering and manufacturing at Apple. She has a master’s degree from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College of London. She studied product design at Stanford. Luckily, for all of us, she’s channeling her experience and energy towards realizing a world without plastic waste through this amazing company we’ll hear about today. Welcome, Insiya. It’s really a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks for joining us.
Insiya: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Dylan: Before we get into Shellworks, I’d love to learn more about your background. How did you get here, and what have been some of the major inspirations along the way?
Insiya: Of course. I’m actually Sri Lankan originally. I grew up there and then I went back to study in the US at Stanford. Very lucky to end up at the firm. In retrospect, now, I feel like it was as a result that I was. I think for me, I have always loved working with my hands. Stanford was an amazing place to experience that, or pushed that further because they have a beautiful machine shop.
From the first year as a freshman, I spent a lot of my time there just exploring how you could make things. I think that’s what sparked my interest. Stanford has some of the most cutting-edge research centers. I was really intrigued by research and science, although I didn’t really have the background in it, and how to combine that with making and bringing that to life. It continued further because I was like, “Okay, I want to figure out how to make things but make things at scale.”
That’s when I went to Apple. It’s amazing. They make, I mean, to me, at least, in my opinion, the most beautiful products, but also manufactured immaculately. There I got to learn from people who are just amazing at electronics. They’re amazing at building things with their hands; some of the best designers. It was a space where I could learn, not only how to make things for myself, but how to make them at the quality and design and appreciation, but also at a massive scale.
I think I also got to the point where I was like, “Okay, there’s only so many watches I’m going to make in this world. Maybe I need to figure out what’s next for me.” That’s what brought me to London and where I met my co-founder who happens to just love natural materials. He was doing architecture but was known in his department as the guy who grew fungus in the background. He was exploring at the time mycelium before mycelium was really that cool. We just really enjoyed working together. We started exploring what we could do with natural materials and how we could make them, and how I could bring maybe more of my engineering and research background.
That’s how Shellworks started. It was honestly just like our love for experimenting, but we wanted to do it with an impact. Honestly, there’s no bigger impact than plastics.
Dylan: In your opinion, why is addressing the plastics problems such a big deal?
Insiya: You grew up seeing plastic everywhere. I think the thing is, plastics itself is not a problem because plastics is an amazing material, to be honest. I haven’t always plastics. It’s just that they’re not always used in the best application. A lot of what we think about is how can you use something to design something to last only as long as it needs to?
I think what we see with the plastics problem is a material that’s been used for perhaps too many wrong applications. It’s that misuse that’s what’s causing this issue. How do we bring perhaps more materials into that mix, to start reducing the impact of that, and actually maybe celebrating plastic for what it’s really good at, which is lasting a really long time.
Dylan: Before we get into what you’re doing at Shellworks, I just have to ask. You mentioned Sri Lanka and growing up in Sri Lanka. I know it’s a place that feels the effects and the potential risks of climate change more than a lot of other places in the world. Has that influenced this path at all? Is that something you think about?
Insiya: I’d say it’s always a combination. I think we call ourselves critical optimists, because I never like to think, talk too much about the problem, because I think we all know what the problem is. Growing up in Sri Lanka, yes, I grew up going to swims every weekend. At some point, in my adult life, these swims turned out to be swimming with plastic water bottles. It’s never something that you want to do. At the same time, a lot of how I think about the problem is that there has to be a better way, and it’s more about creating that solution that could just be just the best packaging in the world. It doesn’t have to be sustainable. It just has to be best, because now we’re taking into a criteria that maybe we didn’t know to take into consideration before.
Dylan: Your co-founder and you started looking into alternative materials. Can you talk about what it is specifically that Shellworks is doing to address the problem?
Insiya: Yes, of course. When we first started looking at alternative materials, we actually started at seafood waste, and that’s perhaps where the name comes from. Shellworks was originally looking at waste seafood. There’s this biopolymer called chitin in shells that you can utilize, which acts just like a biopolymer. We started exploring, creating films, cups. We had to create the manufacturing processes, in addition to the material itself, because it was really hard to scale. Then somewhere along the way, we– One of our goals was every three months, we have to try and sell something. To do the best we could as quickly as we could.
Then the third time we tried to sell this material, we realized, hey, we’re not doing something correct because we kept getting the feedback like, “This is an amazing idea. It’s super cool but we can’t use it for X, Y, Z reasons.” When we dug into that, it was like, “Hey, sustainability has to be looked at from many different angles,” and you’re using a byproduct, even though it is a byproduct, if we get big enough, and we scale that solution, then it no longer becomes a byproduct. At that point, what do we do? Or it’s not ethos that has to hit all of these different criteria.
We started looking and more and more solutions, and we’re much more plugged into that ecosystem. We’ve probably explored everything from mycelium to bacterial cellulose to chitosan, and then we came across this technology, which is based on bacteria. There are bacteria that exist in the soil in marine environments. Naturally, they have an ability to grow a granule that if you extract from their cell behaves like a thermoplastic.
What’s beautiful about it is that if you throw a thermoplastic away, the same bacteria in solvent marine environments see it as their food and break it down. In a way, we’re just using nature’s most powerful tool to help create solutions that are more in sync or symbiosis with nature as well.
Dylan: I just have to ask, you had a goal of selling something every three months?
Dylan: Do you– Literally, finding a customer and selling a product. Tell me more about that.
Insiya: I think maybe it was because we were influenced by software startups as well a little bit. Software startups can just iterate and prototype and test it quickly versus a hardware company, it’s a little bit more nuanced sometimes. We wanted to keep that element. It didn’t even matter. In the beginning days, we were testing things like a film and we were like, “Hey, we have no idea how to make films for bags, but there is this exhibition that wants to hang some films from their ceiling.” We’re like, “If we try and they’re willing to buy it, fine. We’ll just try and learn about the manufacturing process.” We sold these films that are hanging in Paris exhibitions just so that we could learn.
Then it was the same with the cups. We were like, “Hey, we have these cups, but we don’t know– No one’s going to pay this much for a cup, first of all. We were like, “Hey, it’s a rigid item. We could make a candle out of it.” We sold candles to learn about the cup manufacturing process. I think we’ve done this time and time again.
We started working with a perfume company. Honestly, we tried to do everything from their secondary packaging to their trays, and then eventually, we ended up doing their bottle caps. See, I think that ethos in that mentality is very much there, and the team is just like, find a way to get it out the door. If you set yourself those constraints, you have to scale back. The complexity has to become less, and you do find ways. Now it’s looking more like six months, to be honest.
Dylan: Still pretty good in a hardware world. I love that. I’m going to remember that because I think you’re right. It’s much more the mentality and software. I think it’s easy to use almost the excuse of hardware to not get that, that real-world feedback and not force yourself to get the commercial validation. I love that you really pushed to do that. That’s awesome.
As I’ve learned about plastics, I’ve understood there’s almost two ways in which to think about its impact on the environment. One is the production of plastic, and traditional plastics use fossil fuels to be produced, and then there’s the end-of-life. As I understand it, you can have– because bioplastics are all over, you can have bioplastics that are– which means they’re created using-
Dylan: -renewable often plant-derived materials. Then you can have biodegradable plastics which sometimes are also bioplastics but could also be fossil fuel-based plastics there, then that’s about how they degrade in the real world.
Insiya: Maybe I’ll add a third category.
Dylan: Okay, please.
Insiya: There’s also a category called compostable plastics. The nuance with biodegradable ones is that they don’t actually have to degrade in a natural environment. They just have to biodegrade anywhere. That I think is where some of the nuance around plastics is. Maybe some faith has been lost in newer materials that in the past were biodegradable plastics but they don’t degrade in a natural environment. It means that the consumer ends up believing that biodegradable plastics were going to solve the end-of-life issue when they didn’t. Now they’ve introduced a new term called compostable, which means that it has to degrade in a compost environment, which is much more representative to a traditional soil or marine environment.
Dylan: Makes sense. Even in a compostable environment, is there a difference between commercial composting and home composting?
Insiya: Home compost is the gold standard. If your material can home compost it means that it’s truly quite natural. Then on top of that there are new certifications like marine degradable as well. That’s another huge level of complexity because a marine environment is so complex and it depends on what layer of the ocean bed you end up on. Maybe not something to dive in right now, but there are many different layers of how you can turn your material. Generally, home compostable gives you the sense that the materials being used have to be natural because they’re degrading in a very basic home environment.
Dylan: Your material is both derived from a renewable resource and compostable?
Insiya: Compostable, yes
Dylan: Oh, compostable. Awesome.
Insiya: No, it’s a tricky one term in this space because I think greenwashing has also– it’s probably one of the biggest challenges for anyone developing a new material, because it’s quite hard to communicate to a consumer what specifically you’re doing because there have been so many terms introduced. It’s a bit of a challenge at the moment, which is why now we’ve started just creating visual or physical assets so people can touch and feel and truly understand what’s going on.
Dylan: Maybe that’s a good segue into the business model and how that has gone. Speaking of selling to customers, what exactly are you selling, and who are you selling it to?
Insiya: We decided to start in the beauty industry for a couple of reasons. I’d say the first is, it’s probably one of the ones that’s overlooked. There are a lot of alternative materials that are focusing on the food industry. Beauty contributes to something like, I want to say 180 million units of packaging a year. It’s probably in the top three offenders of plastic pollution, but not many solutions exist because you need to be quite resistant to formulas. It’s also not something that people traditionally think of as a problem because it’s not a single use, but in a way is single use, because once you use your cream in 6 to 12 months, sometimes even shorter, where does that product end up?
The second reason we also decided to work here is because that material is quite good. It’s resistant to all these different formulas. We have the ability to start telling that story of like, “Yes, this is just quite good packaging for your product. It doesn’t have to be a compromise.” It’s a big one of our principles, is how do we create a product without compromise? We don’t feel a consumer should have to compromise sustainability.
It’s crazy, the beauty industry, the more we get to know it is vast. You sometimes don’t think about it, but a pump or a lipstick, for example, is actually five different types of material, so it can never be recycled, and it’s so tiny that it actually falls through the degrades. It seems like a good place for us to start making an impact and learning a lot.
Then our goal is to grow into the personal care and the food space. We hope to enter the personal care and food space after, because they operate at much larger volumes. Once we’ve scaled up, we can start to offer the solutions, but otherwise we tactically made a choice that we don’t do pilots. Pilots sometimes don’t enter the life of the customer. I think going back to that fact of we’d love to sell within three months. Isn’t in our DNA to do more in-house testing, we want the real-world feedback
Dylan: How do your customers look at this? I imagine they subject all the same greenwashing that you just mentioned and there’s all these other bioplastics out there and biodegradable plastics and stuff, is it a hurdle to educate them on why, what you’re doing is different and better? Then do they have to in turn educate their customers? What does that process look like, and how are they convinced in the end?
Insiya: To be honest, not really. It’s another reason we play in this space is our customers are really clued in. They have someone who’s probably the head of their sustainability, who’s looked at every type of plastic, who understands the nuances of every different end-of-life, then they’ve come up with that strategy. When we say home compostable versus biodegradable versus recyclable versus mono-material, they know exactly what we mean.
It’s also because the beauty industry came under a lot of scrutiny. They changed their entire supply chain and their ingredients. You’ll hear a lot about clean beauty and how natural ingredients have been used. The last piece of puzzle is their packaging.
Dylan: They’re pretty savvy to this. What about from a cost standpoint, are they willing to pay more for this than traditional plastics?
Insiya: Yes, but also, in most instances, we don’t ask them to pay more than what they’re paying already. It’s a space where they’re used to using a glass container or a metal container because they want to be more sustainable. Then we’re not just competing with really cheap plastic. In most instances, if they use plastic, they’ll try to use PCR, which in itself also has a premium cost associated with it. When we stack up against the options that they’re using today, we’re not necessarily asking them to pay more.
Dylan: Oh, interesting. You’re actually a preferred alternative to something like a metal or a glass container?
Insiya: Well, because of the weight. Glass is typically preferred but it’s quite heavy. They’re thinking about the emissions related to that. Then with metals, they’re not always compatible with all the different ingredients, and they can’t make every form factor, like a pump, for example.
Dylan: What about these things like lipsticks that require multiple– you said five different materials, is that something you’re tackling as well, or are you focused on the single material pots of cream and that type of thing?
Insiya: No, we’ve gone for the big problems in the industry. The things like the lipsticks or the pumps that have certain different types of material, that’s what we want to tackle. One of the beautiful things about the bacteria that we use is that, based on the different types of bacteria, you can create a completely different material. We can offer the same end-of-life but something that degrades that has something different material properties. Something flexible and rigid, but if you throw it away in compost will all degrade the same. It’s one of the things that we’re quite excited about and exploring now. It’s not out in the market but it’s how we’re doing a lot of our development.
Dylan: Okay, cool. I’ve seen on your website, I don’t know if I’m saying it right, Vivomer.
Dylan: Vivomer, is your brand name for one of your plastics?
Dylan: With these other plastics that did different product lines, essentially.
Insiya: Maybe it’ll just be Vivomerflex.
Dylan: Nice. I love the name, by the way.
Insiya: Oh, thank you. It comes from– Naming was actually– oh my goodness, we spent hours and hours. People–naming something is hard, it is very hard work. We finally came to this because we were like, “Oh, it’s kind of like a living material, living polymer.” Then we were like, “Okay, Vivomer,” but man, we went through hundreds and hundreds of names and brainstormed after brainstorms and voting after voting. Anyway, we’d have to pick one
Dylan: Well done. You’ve told me before that you hold a really high bar in terms of what applications you’ll pursue for your product. There are all these other examples of plastic alternatives and use today. Can you tell me a little bit what that bar is and why that’s important to you?
Insiya: I think we believe a lot in longevity. There’s always stepwise progress you might need to make. In the past, again, I think it’s not necessarily the wrong product that was made, it was just marketed wrong. Was marketed as biodegradable, which led the consumers to believe X, Y, Z, versus if there had just been like, “This is a renewable material but behaves the same as plastic,” we would’ve had a better chance. Because of this murkiness now, for us, at least we feel like holding ourselves to the highest bar, because we believe that’s where longevity comes from. Consumers have lost so much trust that if you do something that’s a compromise, it’s quite hard for you to build, revive your brand, at least that’s our opinion. That’s how we operate at the moment.
There are other amazing companies in this space as well, who hold themselves to the same standard. What’s the quote? A rising tide lifts all boats. That’s one we use often in this community. They’re great seaweed packaging companies and their technology is again, completely natural. They’ve also been looking at which specific application to make. There’s one in London that’s called Notpla that just uses seaweed sachets. There’s one in California called Sway. Everyone’s found their space that they’re operating in. A lot of it is, like, “Now, how do we grow?” How do we grow so that we can because plastics is–
Someone told me this recently, one of my customers said that they were, like, “Oh, we’re going to replace our baby spoon, but obviously, our baby spoon is We sell 500 million a year.” One baby spoon for one. We’re, like, “Okay, cool. We’re speaking like 100,000 right now. For us, that’s a huge number, but like 500 million.” We’re all trying to just get to that scale, so we can make the impact we want to make because plastics are such a huge problem. Just one, even if we can make one at 500 million, would start to get there, start to put a dent.
I do think there’s a shift to more and more of us, even though we’re really happy to test and iterate and get stuff out there, not to compromise on the sustainable values, because consumers have started to really understand the nuances. That’s been really helpful for us, but equally, it holds us accountable to what we’re doing and how we hope to grow.
Dylan: Just thinking about what, I guess you could compromise on the material itself, but also, in some of the applications I can imagine there might be, the material is biodegradable, but it’s laminated with something that’s not biodegradable or it’s assembled with something that’s not biodegradable, so in reality, you can’t throw the whole thing in the compost. Is that the compromise you’re trying to stay away from?
Insiya: Yes, exactly. When we say mono-material, we mean that we don’t use anything outside of one singular type of material. We don’t use any synthetic dyes or pigments. We don’t use adhesives. I mean, it’s a long list. Sometimes we’re, like, “Oh, we’re making our lives really, really hard.” Then, I don’t know, I do think constraints are really interesting. If you have a set of constraints, and you have a set of people who are, like, “Yes, we’re just going to do it.” Anyway, you’ll figure out a way. A lot of the time, the team has found different ways to assemble things or different ways to create a mechanism or different ways to assemble the product.
Design has played a really large role in how we approach problems. It’s also been a key to our success, I guess, because we’re just always like, “Okay, well, we have these concerns, and we can’t use these things.” We’re not afraid of those applications, either. When I talk about a pump in the beauty industry, it’s probably the hardest thing to achieve. We’ll just be like, “Okay, how do we redesign it so that we don’t have to use an adhesive or a glass piece or a metal bowl?” We’ll find a way.
Dylan: Yes, that’s tough, even like a spring, don’t they all have a little spring in that mechanism?
Insiya: They do. Then you could use the company ‘s made mono-material pump with a plastic spring. Then it’s how do we achieve those material properties in our own materials, so that it’s compostable and mono-material.
Dylan: Yes, and then what about on the disposal side? I’ve been reading about how even organic materials that end up in the landfill, they’ve excavated landfills, and 50 years later, carrots are still orange. I mentioned there’s some amount of education that needs to happen for you to really realize the end-of-life benefit here. Is that true?
Insiya: Yes, I mean, end-of-life is a huge challenge, because it requires working across different disparate counties and weight systems that all work in completely different realms. Someone that is looking at applications that can’t be recycled, this application could never be recycled, therefore, it’s always going to end up in landfill. If this ends up in landfill versus a piece of plastic, if there’s more organic material in landfill, the more ability for landfill to actually degrade properly, more like a compost than a landfill. There’s a little bit of that.
Then in the background, we’re actually working on a grant with the government, the UK Government, to test out all these different scenarios. What is actually the truth behind our material in a landfill? What is actually the truth behind that material if it’s littered? While we can’t solve all of these problems all at once, at least we can be extremely transparent about what is happening and why.
The partners or the customers we’re working with are totally on board to help us spread that message to their end consumers as well. Some of the work we did with our first launch ran through Haeckels, which is an extremely supportive partner. They really shared how home composting works. If you have access to home composting, at week one versus week two, versus week three, what should you expect? If you can’t home compost, please bring it back to us. That’s the other story for these brands.
We’re taking steps, basically, it’s probably one of the hardest problems. It’s not going to be just us to solve it. It’s going to be a multi-pronged approach. It’s going to be an improvement in recycling. It’s going to be an improvement in organic waste. We’re quite excited at the potential of organic waste, because at least in the UK, people still can compost more than the rate of recycling, for example, or people have more access to food waste than they do in these other systems. We’re definitely pushing in that realm for our products.
Dylan: I guess even if it does end up, there’s so much plastic in the ocean, for example. Then you read about the crazy microplastics problem, where as I understand it, all these plastics are degrading, but they’re not biodegradable. They’re just being broken down into tiny little pieces.
Dylan: Yes, Vivomer ends up in the ocean, it’ll actually disappear.
Dylan: Definitely, fully degrade.
Insiya: Yes. I mean, I think we always call ourselves critical optimists, because we would really love for everything to end up in its right place. We’re also aware that right now, that’s not the case. We do design our products for that worst-case scenario. Although, we have a strong ethos and how we package that information, because it’s not a license to litter either. Just because this material is natural doesn’t mean that we should throw it away irresponsibly, we still want people to think about where they’re throwing things and be conscious about that. Equally, if they aren’t able to, then it won’t impact the environment in the same way.
Dylan: I want to talk about, get a little bit more into the technology here and the process. It’s based on this waste product from microbes that exist in nature. Where in this chain does Shellworks get involved? Are you culturing microbes in your facilities? Are you buying this waste product from somebody else?
Insiya: Maybe a correction there. It depends on who we work with and it depends on the scales. One of our largest partners uses waste renewable to feed the microbes. Then the microbes through fermentation create this granule that we extract that behaves like a thermoplastic. That’s at scale, we work with a couple of different partners to get this granule. Then we formulate it into pellets that work with injection molding tooling and products. In the background, we also do our own research on new strains on new microbes on new materials. Like I mentioned, this set of microbes have the ability to create all the different types of materials that open up new applications and new processes.
We do dabble and not in every space, it’s probably the nature of who we are and how we act. Primarily, a lot of our innovation today has been more on the formula side, taking something that isn’t easily processed or manufacturable, and being able to be made into products and figuring out how to work with the materials, but also the tooling. Also, these other elements like how do you pigment something that’s natural with something natural? Or how do you create a mono-material solution with something that may be the easiest material to work with? Those are the complexities that we solve at the moment. Then we’re looking at how we can add to our material set by doing further R&D.
Dylan: What does the process look like once you take these granules? What happens from there?
Insiya: Yes, it’s a lot of us working with traditional manufacturing processes. There’s a process called twin-screw compounding where you can create different formulas and you create the pellets. That’s how it works. Traditional plastic pellets are often made. Then right now we do injection molding. That’s how we make our pots. More recently, we’re starting to explore what are the other manufacturing processes out there. How could we also create formulas that work for these other processes?
Dylan: What’s one of the biggest technical challenges you’ve encountered?
Insiya: Manufacturing at scale. Creating both the formula and the tooling to help work hand in hand in order to create a product to the level and quality and aesthetics that we want, so that you don’t have to have to compromise. I think aesthetics is a huge one for us.
We want to create something that’s beautiful because in a way, also we don’t necessarily want to encourage people to throw things away. There’s a little bit of that as well in our ethos. Especially because we’re playing in the space like beauty, people could keep those products. They are beautiful. At the end of the day, people like me don’t like consuming too much. We live that lifestyle. We also want to create our solutions to fit within that.
Dylan: Then the challenge of cosmetics, is it things like color and texture, or is it about the injection molding process, draft and parting lines and sync and stuff like that, or where does that come into play?
Insiya: I’d say all of it. All of it is all the challenges. We only use natural dyes. Natural dyes inherently have a lot of variability. All of the challenges that you would imagine injection molding and then because it’s a material that’s new. It’s new. It’s in plastics, and millions of years not millions of years, thousands of years to get perfected, perhaps hundreds. We probably just need a bit more time generating and testing and the branding.
Dylan: Then the other angle I was thinking about this is, as a mechanical engineer and a lot of people I work with and know are engineers that design plastics into products all the time, how should people like that be thinking about Vivomer and other– Are these types of plastics and is it a drop-in replacement, and will this be a potential material to be used in future products or is it different from that?
Insiya: The goal is always to make it as easy as possible. The drop-in is something we definitely think about. I don’t know, I think the way to really think about it is just to start understanding what it means. It’s going to require more people working on it with these new materials in order for it to really proliferate. Whether it’s our materials or seaweed-based plastics or mycelium packaging, the more people that are testing and trying them out and figuring out how to make these applications. Everyone is always quite creative in their design process and engineering process. They might discover something along the way that makes it really good for application.
I think mostly just trying to understand the nuances of the space. I know it’s quite hard to get your hands on these materials these days because it is very limited, unfortunately. We have most of our products still at a bit of a smaller scale than we would like to be. Just trying to be at the frontier of testing stuff is probably the best way, because hopefully, it’ll be a drop-in. If it’s not, it’s just like working with another performance material. I think there’s many performance materials that require slight nuances and it’s a little bit more of an art than a science sometimes.
Dylan: Thinking about the future a little bit, what’s next for Shellworks? Do you have things on the roadmap that you’d like to talk about or that you’d like to focus on?
Insiya: Right now, we’re just focused on scaling. Then I would say that our biggest challenge is trying to get these at a larger scale, and then new product development to tackle some of the bigger issues in the beauty industry. We started with something less complex, like a jar is a less complex product. Now, we’re leveling up and trying to go for the harder battles.
Dylan: You’ve talked about scale a little bit. It is so massive. The numbers are just mind boggling like your baby spoon example. I guess, how do you wrap your head around that? Do you think there’s a world beyond plastic waste, and what do we need to do?
Insiya: Of course, there is. 100%. I think the best piece of advice I got is that you can only look at what the next stage is. We did 5,000, and we did 25,000. Now, we’re doing 250,000. Then we’ll do a couple of million, and we’ll do 10 million, and we’ll do 100 million. Let’s see how it goes. Sometimes it can be a bit daunting if you’re like, ‘Oh, my goodness, how do I get to 500 million?” It’s not as daunting if you think about how to get to a couple of 100,000. That’s achievable. That’s how we break it down for ourselves, is just, how do we get to the next stage?
Also, keep going. We’ve been fortunate enough to be in this ecosystem with other people who are working on the same problem, and everyone is really collaborative because honestly, none of us are competing. There’s just so much to do. It is a nice community to be part of, to be honest.
Dylan: Are there challenges with scale that are unique to your material? I don’t know, is the supply of the granules limited, for example or something like that? Is it just the typical challenges with scaling to that level?
Insiya: I would say it’s the typical challenge because in part it’s a chicken and egg situation. If there’s the demand, the supply will be there. There’s no real shortage. It’s just that, how do we also make the cost and the demand and everything work in symbiosis, but this has been done before. These kinds of challenges have been solved. I think there will always be hard problems. I think it’s something quite exciting, because it feels it’s the right time in the world to be working on it. People love the solution. We got lucky that way.
The momentum is going to keep going. There are more and more people entering the market, which in a way, it just adds fire. Everyone’s just trying to get there. We’re very optimistic.
Dylan: Where do you see Shellworks in 10 years?
Insiya: Ideally, people are saying it’s the Gore-tex of materials for sustainable solutions.
Dylan: I like it. A few closing questions. How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of our planet and why?
Insiya: I suppose I’m optimistic because I think optimism drives change. It’s why we don’t like to talk about the problems. We only like to think about the opportunities. I think opportunities are exciting and within your grasp, and you can get there.
Dylan: I love it. I can hear that optimism in talking to you. It’s contagious. I think it’d be a lot of fun to work with you. Who is one other person or company doing something to address climate change right now that’s inspiring you?
Insiya: I mentioned them once before but I guess, a shout-out to Sway in California. They make seaweed-based packaging. I think they also bring a lot of optimism. On your down days, you go and check out what they do, what they’re doing. I would say they’re doing a phenomenal job, and it’s always really inspiring to see how they’re approaching it or the new ideas that they have.
Dylan: One thing I feel I’ve learned talking to people in climate tech, generally, is the competitive spirit you get in a lot of other industries isn’t there as much. It’s almost like, we’re all in this together. There’s a big enough problem that we all need each other in that community. That community feel that you’re referencing seems really strong, and anyway, just to say I love that.
Insiya: It’s nice. It’d be daunting, to be honest. It’s nice to have competitors. It’s like, “Okay, I can learn from someone else,” because it’s quite a new space, and if you don’t have that, it can be even more daunting, I think.
Dylan: What advice do you have for someone not working in climate tech today who wants to do something to help?
Insiya: One, it’s an exciting space, and there’s so much opportunity, and you don’t have to be working on it to really be helping. Honestly, anyone who’s even a shoulder for me to talk to, run to or help, they’re all part of Shellworks. My roommates, my friends, everyone came and helped me scrub the floor when we first moved in. You don’t have to– No role is small enough. They’re all really meaningful. The help, everyone gets to the goal of achieving, so maybe just try and find one or two friends and that’s enough.
Dylan: I love it. Insiya, it’s been really fun talking to you and I’ve learned a lot. I love your approach and your optimism and what you’re doing. I think it’s a beautiful vision for the future without plastic waste. Thanks for taking the time.Insiya: Thank you. No, thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.