Lucy Hughes, the founder of MarinaTex, is the very definition of a disruptor. In November 2019, Lucy won the Plus X Disruptors competition with her sustainable alternative to plastic, winning herself a membership at Plus X Brighton. She’s been with us ever since, developing and growing her business. Lucy has truly become a Plus X ambassador and sustainability pioneer in the community. We caught up with her to find out more about her journey.
Made from waste from the fishing industry and red algae, MarinaTex is designed as a planet conscious alternative to single-use plastic. The company is Technology Readiness Level (TRL) three, meaning they’re still prototyping and developing in the labs. The material is aimed at packaging solutions such as retail bags and food contact packaging (the film you get on the front of a sandwich packet). Though, the material has gained exposure for other uses, such as gas fitting packaging too.
“At the moment, we’re trying to identify the best application to then scale up production for that particular application. We’re also currently seeking grant funding and looking to raise Series A funding in the next 8 months.”
When Lucy entered the Disruptors competition in 2019, she had only just graduated from her undergraduate studies in Product Design at Sussex University. MarinaTex was her final year project. The material had already received immense recognition, landing the National and International James Dyson awards in 2019. After graduating, she decided to take a few months away from the project, however an article by LadBible and an endorsement from John Lewis and Partners spurred Lucy on to continue with the project.
“It was in quite juvenile stages as a business. It was just an idea and a material. Through my time at Plus X, it’s turned from a student project into a registered R&D company ”
Now a fully-fledged company, MarinaTex have been able to complete several R&D projects, an incubator programme and two accelerator programmes. Alongside this, Lucy has successfully raised 75K of non-dilutive funds for continued development. This has meant that MarinaTex can begin to scale (exciting!). Their first hire is an intern funded by the Sussex Accelerator. This role will support MarinaTex in sparking meaningful industry conversations to validate and test the market. Lucy also hopes to soon hire a chemist.
MarinaTex has achieved a very long list of recognition, too. Besides winning the James Dyson award, the sustainable startup has been exhibited at the Design Museum in London. In addition, Lucy has spoken at the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) and the European Commission’s Blue Invest event, where they launched Horizon 2020.
“We also got onto the EIT Seedbed Incubator, which is a European funded incubator programme which comes with funding, mentors, and access to the European Agri-Food Tech network.”
Lucy is currently continuing to develop MarinaTex and her product offering through support available on the BRITE programme.
“Funding is a key challenge. That’s not due to a lack of people interested in investing. It’s more due to the scale of the project. It’s going to be expensive, and I can’t dilute too early. If I do that, by the time I get to series C rounds, there will be no company left to give.”
This is an inherent issue startup founders are faced with. There is always a challenge around how to get “free” money. Often, even bids and awards come with an agenda, meaning that your roadmap can be pivoted. It’s hard to maintain a momentum of direction in this phase. For MarinaTex, the material is versatile enough to be suitable for a range of applications.
“Winning a fashion competition when you’re focusing on food applications can actually be a hindrance. There’s a lot to be distracted by.”
Being up against the plastic industry is also no small feat. This industry has 100 years of funding, 100 years of development, and 100 years proving to corporations that it works – and is a cheap solution. However, the world is waking up to the implications of plastic. Hopefully, key-decision makers within plastics and packaging use are catching up too.
“We’re really good at making plastic, we’re good at manufacturing it, we’re good at shipping it,” – it’s hard to compete with something that’s so well established that it is such low value.”
MarinaTex is embarking on a project funded through the NELEP (North East Local Enterprise Partnership) to conduct feasibility research into gas fitting packaging (the polybags that hold gas fitting). This initiative has seen ten letters of support from utilities companies across the UK. This project's approval proves that companies are waking up to their responsibility to sustainability and that there are startups out there they can collaborate with to achieve their goals.
Approaching a collaboration project always comes with challenges. Some of the feedback that MarinaTex received is that often, corporates want a solution, and they want it now.
“Often they’re not willing to invest time, energy and money into earlier stage projects.”
Other challenges have involved questions around how to approach large scale collaboration. What does a collaboration deal look like? How do you approach IP sharing? If they stole your IP, would you even have the money to sue them?
“What’s the etiquette? That’s the kind of stuff you can’t Google.”
Overcoming challenges to unleash a wealth of potential
Once you break through the barriers and challenges involved with collaboration projects, you tap into a wealth of potential. This potential could be instrumental to a startup scaling its innovation. For example, corporates have the resources to test materials. They may have an internal R&D team so they can run pilots. They also have the budget; if not in their supply and distribution budget, they could move some over from marketing, considering sustainability initiatives reflect well on their brand.
“If a big company decides to make a change, they can create real impact. The CEO of Sky decided one day that they were going to cut out all plastic – and they’ve done it.”
This is fundamental. Industries need to wake up to the impact that they can create. With the Sky example, it took one person to decide they were making a change. With governments, this could spur on a process that spans years.
“Collaborating with a nimble, agile startup like MarinaTex is the only way real change can happen – fast. If we rely on government policy for wider change, we could be waiting years.”
One of the most significant barriers to change is slow-moving and disconnected policymaking. Governments are simply not penalising industry use of plastic quick enough. We need more incentives for companies to implement change.
“You need to come down on manufacturers as well. You can’t just put taxes on the brands for buying virgin plastic – they need to be incentivising the entire supply chain. There needs to be pressure from everyone – governments and consumers.”
Better World Collective supports both startups and corporates through the challenges of sustainable material innovation collaborations so that solutions can make a more immediate impact. From workshopping what a collaboration project looks like, supporting implementing a project effectively, and inviting policymakers into the conversation. We believe that a more sustainable, better world is possible. It just takes effective and streamlined collaboration between the startups with solutions and the corporates that can scale them.
The Brighton Research Innovation Technology Exchange (BRITE) mentioned in this article is a business innovation programme for ambitious and established businesses led by a highly experienced and dedicated team from Plus X innovation hubs, in partnership with the University of Brighton which is renowned for world-class research innovation expertise. The BRITE programme is receiving up to £5m of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020.