Explain the problem your business/project aims to solve.
Textiles are damaging the planet by accelerating climate change, creating mountains of plastic pollution whilst consuming vast amounts of land and other precious natural resources. In fact, 60-80% of an apparel brand’s total environmental-footprint comes from the materials it uses. The root cause comes from problematic supply chains, animal-based, petroleum-based and even plant-based options all have their shortfalls. Animal-based textiles are co-products of resource heavy cattle and flocks, petroleum-based textiles require astronomic amounts of grey water to dilute harmful side-products whilst emitting huge quantities of carbon and although plant-based textiles are often the least impactful solution, by growing them in arid, water-deprived areas of the world, we’re pushing local environments to their limits.
How does it solve this problem?
SaltyCo combines material science and regenerative agriculture to create planet-positive textiles. Our first product, BioPuff®, is a plantbased fibrefill for use as an alternative to goose-down or synthetics. Not only is it warm and lightweight, with a naturally recovering fibrestructure, but BioPuff is also biodegradable, carbon neutral and promotes biodiverse ecosystems.
We work with farmers and conservation groups to convert areas of damaged land into healing environments. Using sensitive harvesting strategies, these spaces can help to heal the planet, whilst providing feedstock for material production. This is where our innovative fibre-extraction-technology allows us to process these plants into textiles. We also adapt our feedstock methods for the local environmental needs, whether that’s plant removal for precious land conservation, introduction of saline agriculture for the cultivation of salt-tolerant plants, or paludiculture for the recovery of peatlands. We make sure our practices are the right ones for people and planet.
Where did the idea originate?
SaltyCo spun out of a double-masters programme at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. A team was formed in our second year of studying Innovation Design Engineering – we recognised our equal passion for environmental design as well as the textiles industry and began researching why this industry was contributing so much damage to the planet. We found that it essentially boiled-down to three reasons; the over-production of plastic-based products that pollute our ecosystems, the huge carbon dioxide emissions that are warming our planet and the completely unsustainable strain on our natural resources that are rapidly dwindling.
By understanding these key three elements of this issue we could then look at how we might design a solution. Instead of plastic-based materials, how could we turn to plant-based ones that could biodegrade whilst still remaining cost-effective? How would we not only reduce the emissions of CO2, but actively start sequestering it to help reverse the effects of the industry? And how might we turn away from using scarce resources and move towards abundant ones? All of this pointed us towards our solution: regenerative agriculture.
Was your business inspired by a major global challenge that you were exposed to because of your course at Imperial?
The Innovation Design Engineering programme is divided into several, shorter back-to-back modules in the first year. One of these modules is called GoGlobal where you are sent somewhere around the world to learn about local design challenges and work in teams with local experts to consider innovative design solutions. In 2019 this took us the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where we were split into groups looking at either sexual health in young people or waste management within the city. The waste management groups often visited Dandora – a landfill over 30 acres wide, one of the largest in Africa. It was obvious that huge amounts of this waste was coming from textiles, and seeing the horrific conditions that locals who live on the edge of the site have to deal with every day left us with a deep sense of needing to do something about it.
How did your team meet?
The SaltyCo team met through our double masters programme – Innovation Design Engineering (IDE). IDE brings together a transdisciplinary group of designers, engineers, scientists, artists (and many other backgrounds) to approach global or local challenges through cutting-edge design thinking.
Throughout our first year we got to experience and learn from each other’s design methods, experience, knowledge and interests through a series of back-to-back projects. This meant that when it came to our second year, we had a strong idea of the sort of team we’d like to form for our group project. We balance each other well as we come from a diverse range of backgrounds; Finlay with chemistry and materials, Antonia with design and creative, Nelly with strategic design and management and myself (Julian) with a background in engineering.
Do you have any advisors? If so how did they get involved?
SaltyCo wouldn’t be where it is today without the huge amount of help we received through a rapidly growing network of advisors and connections that help point us in the right direction. However, some of the most impactful advisors have been those from the Imperial Ventures Mentoring Service (IVMS); Guy, Hayley and Laura. They have guided us through some of our most important decisions and offered invaluable expertise on everything from regenerative agriculture, fundraising and branding. We would highly recommend anyone with an early-stage venture at Imperial getting involved with these advisors.
What stage is the business/project at and what are your plans moving forward?
SaltyCo have now launched our first product, BioPuff®, in a capsule collection with a leading brand. In addition to this, we are midway into a 12-month project that is being funded by InnovateUK (IUK). This project is enabling us to test our entire supply chain from start to finish, from the regenerative agricultural sources that we work to cultivate all the way through to the production of our planet-positive materials and onto the shop floor with our chosen customers! We’ve got big plans to scale BioPuff® production whilst keep our supply chain healthy for the planet, and alongside this we’ve got some brand-new products on the horizon. At SaltyCo we like to keep innovating and we will keep working on our mission to make all textiles planet-positive!
Are you raising funding, what is your fundraising target and what will you use the funds for?
We’ll be looking to raise money around Autumn/Winter – if anyone is interested in our terms then please feel free to reach out!
What’s been your biggest success so far?
We have had the privilege of being selected as the winners for numerous competitions, which is always a fantastic validation that we’re moving in the right direction, especially if the judges are from Vogue Italia! However, one of the most rewarding successes is probably seeing our hard work come to fruition. When we spend months of developing our textiles to suit brand requirements and see it pay off with a happy customer. Or when we plant 20,000 seeds by hand in a nursery in Preston, and then transplanting them into a real crop a few months later. These are the moments where you recognise that combined effort and diligence in our work is starting to pay off.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
One of the hardest challenges can often be communication, but it’s simultaneously one of the most important things to get right. SaltyCo doesn’t just make environmentally-friendly textiles and it doesn’t just create regenerative agricultural feedstocks – we do both. This means that our business model has added complexity and we have to work extra hard to communicate the importance of why insetting sustainability is so important, why having traceability from seed to store is non-negotiable and how every decision we make has to be audited if we are going to be confident with the claim of our ‘planet-positive textiles’.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
There’s less of a gap than you think between your idea and having an operating startup. It’s not about having the killer idea on day one, it’s about exploring what you are going to offer through the daily grind of building your company.
Ask lots of people for help because 99 times out of 100 they will be willing to lend a hand.
Look for opportunities to build a value chain. Are there other industries or small-businesses or large businesses you could partner with that have aligned interests?
Test your ideas frequently: Conducting research early to validate your hypothesis about the business is incredibly important.
Make sure to build relationships with experts and identify the most important unknown variables. Knowing what you don’t know is the first step! Identify your skill gaps and get experts on board: The sooner you identify the team or business’s skill or knowledge gaps, the sooner you’ll be able to fill them in and enrich your idea.
Support from Imperial
The Venture Catalyst Challenge was an incredible process from start to finish. We were fortunate enough to be selected as the winners of the Creative Consumers Track, which awarded us £10,000 as our first finance to transform our university project into a startup. However, by far the most valuable part of this experience was the weekly schedule of workshops and seminars that taught us the importance of getting the basics right. This was where we defined our customer, where we researched the competitive landscape and ultimately how we formed a compelling narrative around SaltyCo. We must confess it was quite an intense programme to undergo alongside a double-masters programme but we can confidently say it was worth every minute of late nights and hard work.
We spent much of our first few months working on SaltyCo at the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace. This unique centre of maker space/biolab was the perfect environment we needed to iterate tests of our material to create our first prototype product. We used this space to create our first products that were shown at our Work-In-Progress exhibition which was the first showcase to the world of how our idea could become a reality.
As we’ve already mentioned, some of the most impactful advisors have been those from the Imperial Ventures Mentoring Service(IVMS); Guy, Hayley and Laura. They have guided us through some of our most important decisions and offered invaluable expertise on everything from regenerative agriculture, fundraising and branding.