From lab to land:
Commercializing your idea
By Jeff Beegle & Tony Bova, Grow Bioplastics
Photo by Grow Bioplastics
“We were both in graduate school and said, ‘Let’s start a company! How hard could it be?’”
Since that moment, we’ve taken an idea and built a company around it. That idea is taking lignin, a renewable waste product from the paper and pulp industry, and turning it into a naturally biodegradable bioplastic that can be used to make mulch films for specialty crop production, pots, trays for greenhouses and nurseries, and trash bags.
This is what we’ve learned on our journey toward commercialization.
Protect Your Ideas - Taking extra time in the beginning to properly set up your company will save you time, money, and headache down the road. With most products nowadays, it is very important to protect your ideas. This usually means with patents, but it can also include copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets. Building a wall around your ideas helps you keep your competitive edge, which is important if it takes a while to build your first product. We started with an LLC, and plan to convert to a Delaware Public Benefit Corporation before we launch our first products. It’s worth spending a few thousand dollars to consult with a startup lawyer to get this right the first time!
Talk to Customers - Getting “out of the building” and talking to our end-users (farmers and greenhouse owners) was the first step to building a new product. We needed to know exactly what our customers wanted - What does the plastic need to do? How long does it need to last? How much should it cost? All of these factors influenced our product development process and taught us not only that someone likes our idea, but more importantly, helped us find the right value proposition to solve our customer’s pain points. In-person conversations reveal SO much more detail than surveys or market reports do. There’s a lot of subtlety that you can learn from engaging with people, without ever “selling” your idea to them directly. You’ll get more honest feedback too! Programs like the new I-FAST program from USDA and NSF are great for establishing product-market fit and teaching you great interview methods. There’s also grant money available to help you out!
Figure Out the Supply Chain - Our business is focused on a physical product, so we’re a hardware company, not a software company (read more on that below). Building the supply chain for a hardware company is tricky, especially when there are lots of moving parts. Who are our suppliers? Who are our manufacturers? Distributors? Retailers? Where do WE fit in? When modeling out our supply chain for making biodegradable plastics, the big question that emerged for us was “How will this scale?” In our case, we wanted to be a lean company, which means not spending millions to build a manufacturing plant. We had to find a strategic partner that could help us with manufacturing without breaking the bank, and find suppliers that had high volumes of raw materials (lignin, in our case) at a consistent quality, price point, and volume ability.
Find Partners - As mentioned above, we didn’t want to spend millions building a huge manufacturing plant. We went out and talked to people in our supply chain and found some companies that we wanted to work with. These partnerships can make or break a business. A strong partnership can signal to investors that your idea is less risky than it may seem at first glance. In agriculture, networks like AFBF, USDA/NIFA, and statewide ag programs are your best friends to building your business. If you can find the right partners that are aligned with your vision, you can often negotiate great relationships to continue keeping your process lean. They may also be able to provide funding or discounted manufacturing rates under the expectation of a fruitful future business relationship.
- Hardware is not Software - When people think about startups, they often think about programmers in a garage creating the next Facebook in an overnight hack-a-thon. That doesn’t work when you’re building a physical product. There are still long nights, but building prototypes takes more time and money, testing and iterations, and customer feedback. Especially in ag, where growing seasons can start to put rigid time windows on your development process. Farmers are smart and they want to see data about a product before they use it. Establish processes that will help you build a product and iterate quickly. This will give you a competitive advantage.
More than anything, commercializing a product, whether atoms or bits, is hard work. It takes commitment, grit and passion. At the end of the day, we come into work each day knowing that we can help farmers and help the planet by eliminating plastic waste. Why do you come into work each day?
Jeff Beegle and Tony Bova are the co-founders of Grow Bioplastics. At Grow Bioplastics, we see wonder in waste. We’re a sustainability focused company leveraging industrial organic waste streams from agriculture, forestry, paper, biofuel and biorefining industries by creating value-added products that replace petroleum-based plastics at a true competitive price point. Jeff holds an M.S. in microbiology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. in bioengineering from the University of Toledo. Tony is finishing his Ph.D. in energy science and engineering at the University of Tennessee and has a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Toledo.