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36 Billion Straws with Chelsea Briganti

As a young girl growing up in Hawaii with a love for the ocean, LOLIWARE co-founder Chelsea Briganti didn’t dream about inventing an alternative to plastic straws. After discovering that design could be used as a tool to create a better world, a cold email to the CEO of Pepsi ignited her career in innovation. Today, Chelsea is on a mission to replace 36 billion plastic straws with edible seaweed.

“It’s estimated that every week even, humans are ingesting a credit card sized amount of microplastics. It’s so serious alongside global warming, it’s a really important time to step up with very big ideas to solve these problems. And Loliware is just one of millions of companies that are in the sustainability field that are absolutely critical to creating this ecosystem of solutions.”

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Chelsea’s life-long love of the ocean and how it shaped her industrial design career
  • The cold email to Pepsi’s CEO that ignited Chelsea’s career in design and innovation 
  • How Chelsea followed the energy to create LOLIWARE after a design competition sparked consumer demand for edible alternatives to single use plastics 
  • The challenges LOLIWARE faced with scaling after appearing on Shark Tank
  • LOLIWARE’s pivot from cups to straws
  • How LOLIWARE plans to replace 36 billion of the world’s straws through an innovative licensing program 

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Show Notes



Chelsea: It was a serious dose of naivete. So I think they like my fearlessness, or my naivete for the industry too has basically converged at that point. And even when we got the projects, that sort of beginner’s mind, that beginner’s lens and that naivete really served as really important tools for our success as a design agency, if you will.

Vicki: Welcome to SheEO.world, a podcast about redesigning the world. I’m your host, Vicki Saunders. In each episode you’ll hear from SheEO venture founders, women who are working on the world’s to do list. These innovative business leaders are solving some of the major challenges of our times. Sit back and prepare to be inspired.

Vicki: So today we’re here with Chelsea Briganti from Loliware. Hi, Chelsea.

Chelsea: Hi, Vicki.

Vicki: One of the things I often start with is just so, did you always know that you were going to invent an alternative to plastic?

Chelsea: I definitely did not.

Vicki: How did you get here? What was the path? Tell us more.

Chelsea: You know, I grew up in Hawaii, so I have always been half mermaid, if you will. And so that I’m always just really drawn to water. I remember looking through old baby photos and seeing my bassinet on the beach. That can give you a little bit of indication of when my journey with the ocean and being near the water and the sounds began, so basically as a newborn. And my mom found that this was really the only sound that would calm me down. So, grew up in Hawaii, obviously in love with the marine environments and all the magic that’s there, and went on to have a little bit of a zigzag path, if you will.

Chelsea: I was always a very imaginative child, didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Moved from Hawaii to New York to figure it out. I was always really inspired by New York City, and while there I had all sorts of weird jobs. I was a fashion stylist for Toshiba, and I took all kinds of weird gigs. I worked at a vegan restaurant, I designed jewellery, and all the while for about three to four years in New York City trying to figure out what my path might be.

Chelsea: And that’s when I stumbled upon industrial design, and a program that was offered at Parsons School of Design. It’s a well-known institution, kind of like the Harvard of design schools. So I was trying to see if I might be able to get into this school. I applied to a bunch of different design schools, so I spent the summer of 2006 taking arts classes and drawing classes so that I could get the acceptance into Parsons. And then I eventually got accepted in the fall of 2006, and that began my journey of understanding how design might be used as a tool to create a better world. I think I’ll leave it at, and I’m sure you have some comments on that.

Vicki: That’s just so fascinating. So you were creative when you were getting started. One of the things I often wonder about for people that are inventor types and creators is I often see that they synthesize a lot of different experiences. And so your path of trying a bunch of things feels very in line. I mean, certainly that’s what happened with me. I tried tons of different stuff. Were you always passionate about the environment?

Chelsea: So super curious on that note. Super curious and imaginative and always, like you said, trying new things and not being afraid to be bad at them. That’s definitely a theme in the work, and learning a lot from failure. In terms of being an environmentalist, for me it didn’t register because nature is my religion, and I’ve never necessarily been, I didn’t really think about calling myself an environmentalist, although I guess by definition I might be, but really just having reverence for nature, believing that there’s a deep intelligence that’s pre-existed humans on earth that has evolved over billions of years, and that she knows more than we do.

Chelsea: And she has, you know, I believe there are two ways to uncover secrets. One is in nature and one is in people. So I believe strongly that nature has these secrets, and I am very curious and excited to uncover them through different fields. Whether it be biomimicry, where you use design, sorry, you use solutions found in nature and you apply them to solve human problems. I grew up running across lava fields and wanting to be a volcanologist, wanting to explore all these weird kind of esoteric natural platforms of jobs.

Vicki: Okay. I’ve just got this image in my head of running across lava. Nature, tell me your secrets, like a birthing, that what is next? What is this sort of founder story of Loliware, where did that come from? I assume you had all kinds of design projects as you went through school, but where did the nugget of this idea come from?

Chelsea: So I graduated number one in my class at Parsons and I am… I forgot to mention, along with nature as my religion, I’m also deeply a science nerd trying to understand the secrets of nature. You can look at that through a scientific lens and uncovering those kinds of secrets through in that way. And so when I was in college, I did my thesis on this notion of developing a device that would empower women to collect and store their own stem cells. So I worked with Columbia University to develop this device. I won Thesis of the Year for that. And that project really propelled me forward into, how can I intelligently combine different fields to innovate. And that became something that I became really passionate about.

Chelsea: So Mademoicell, with a C-E-L-L at the end, that project that I just mentioned, combined industrial design, tissue engineering, hardcore stem cell science. So I became very knowledgeable on stem cells and understanding what kind of stem cells are found in menstrual blood, which are called multipotent stem cells. So out of the menstrual lining you can generate eight different kinds of stem cells. And this has been stigmatized for a long time, although it’s a bio treasure.

Chelsea: I graduated with this thesis under my belt. My first big press piece was in Fast Company the day after I graduated. And then eventually I sold that invention to a menstruation company. And then when I graduated I had three really close friends in college, all women, Monica, Ingrid and Leanne. And we decided to form a think tank called The Way We See The World. So really long, fun title, again being kind of silly about it, but also a serious lens on how we can use design to solve the world’s problems.

Chelsea: So, you know, how do we all see the world differently? We all come from very diverse backgrounds. So we graduate, we’re all in industrial design and engineering. I have this cool portfolio project, we have a little bit of steam behind us, and I decide, well, what brand do I think really needs our help? Pepsi-Cola, they have a very wasteful packaging portfolio. They make a lot of unhealthy things. Maybe they need us.

Chelsea: So I fished around for Indra Nooyi, who was the CEO of the time, the SheEO of Pepsi. And I found her email and I emailed her a cold email. “Hey Indra, I think that you should hire us to reimagine the future of Pepsi.” And she emailed us, I want to say it was like 25 minutes later, and that’s how we first got a big project with Pepsi. We’re working across really cool stuff, like we would reimagine their packaging. We are working across healthy food and beverage, and that was really an important time for us to wet our palates and to get to know who we were as a design team.

Vicki: Unbelievable. So, okay, let’s talk about fear for a minute, just to pause, or your lack of it. I find this completely delicious that you’re bold enough to go, you know what? Here’s the biggest company that could use my brain, which is just so awesome. So how did you think about writing that email? The hooking of people and getting them excited about and being able to communicate your vision in an email format to get someone to respond is a serious art. So do you have any insight for us on how you did that?

Chelsea: Yeah, I think that it was a serious dose of naivete. When I channel that moment, it’s like I’m going through a water tunnel, but not really worrying about anything but being in the moment and really trying to experience that. And so I think they like my fearlessness, or my naivete for the industry too has basically converged at that point. And I don’t even remember what I wrote. I could probably look it up, but even when we got the projects, that sort of beginner’s mind, that beginner’s lens and that naivete really served as really important tools for our success as a design agency, if you will.

Vicki: Sure. Yeah. I mean, this idea of beginner’s mind is something that I think about. If there’s one thing I could try and bring back is how I felt the first time I did a startup where I had no idea. And so the more experience you have, sometimes the harder it is to get back to beginner’s mind. So, yeah, that is really an amazing thing to have. So okay, you ping Indra, she responds, OMG, and now all of a sudden you’re at Pepsi. What was that like? Did you have your own kind of lab? How did you enter into that? Clearly you created a job for yourself that didn’t exist.

Chelsea: So we became the partners for Pepsi’s innovation team externally because what we learned was the way that big companies innovate is either through incrementalism or through acquisition. What we found out through churning out, I would say tens of thousands of what you would call breakthrough ideas. So when you’re in the innovation industry, they codify ideas by either tier one, tier two, tier three ideas, and you want to be in tier one, which is a breakthrough idea. So we evolved to be a breakthrough innovation lab think tank, and we’re on the inside of Pepsi, and we very quickly notice that we’re total weirdos, and that it’s really hard to help them move the needle.

Chelsea: Now we went on to do this same process of course with new learnings with Coca Cola, with Nestle, with Pernod Ricard, with a lot of top hundred CPGs alongside of these big corporate projects which were funding us and funding the consultancy. We were entering into design competitions to get the name out there so we can continue to get consulting work, and that’s when Loliware was born.

Vicki: Did Loliware come from a problem, or something that you had surfaced as an idea from one of those projects, or out of the blue, or did you start obsessing about plastics in the ocean, or how did that come about?

Chelsea: I’ve always been, like I said, concerned about the environment. I read an article one day that said 33 billion plastic cups enter the ocean every year. And I shared it with the team and I was like, “This is going to be a huge problem. We have to figure this out.” At the same time we had a focus on sustainability already. We already cared about it, as you know. And at the same time I saw design competition for Jell-O, and Kraft was putting on a design competition, and there were two rules. You had to use a gel-like material, and it had to be like a novel application. So we thought, Oh my God, this is going to be so fun. We just read that article. Why don’t we make an edible cup out of Jell-O?

Vicki: Cool.

Chelsea: So one day in the office kitchen we bought a bunch of different, I learned are now called hydrocolloids, which means just like any kind of gelling materials. We bought Jell-O packets, we bought agar-agar, which is a red algae, we bought a few other things, and we were basically just playing in the office kitchen. I took two Solo cups and I stacked them together to create a quick mold, because my background in industrial design, you already know how to make things. We made a quick algae mixture, poured it around the two Solo cups, and let it set. And that afternoon we took a peek and we thought, well, isn’t that cool? We just made a gel cup, like an edible cup. And we entered the competition, and because we are very much, well, at the time we were all really excited about the experiential level of design.

Chelsea: So we just did fun flavors and colors. We thought it would be more fun. Like, why would someone want to eat their cup? Well, what if it were flavored? Let’s incent them to just make it disappear. We entered the competition. They hadn’t, like, it was such a weird idea, they had to make a new category for us. To make a long story short, we won third place, a hundred bucks, got back to the office, went out to dinner, the hundred bucks didn’t even cover the dinner. But it was fun, and we went on to consultancy work the next day. Didn’t think anything about it.

Vicki: Wow, okay.

Chelsea: And then it lit up.

Vicki: And then it lit up. Yeah.

Chelsea: Yeah, I know. So the competition was covered by press and the cup went viral. Two months later, we were in Time Magazine as one of the best scientific inventions of the year, and we were getting orders for millions of cups. And I was writing funny emails like, “That’s so cool. It’s just an idea. Thanks so much. We’ll get in touch with you if we ever commercialize this idea.” And that continued for two years.

Chelsea: So we continued consulting to pay the bills, and then Loliware just kept getting tons and tons of interest, and it just became clear that Loliware had legs and that it could be something other than a side project or a contest. And so basically the evolution story of Loliware is like kind of competition to billion-dollar company.

Vicki: Right. That’s just amazing. Well, and I think this is one of my favorite phrases as you know, is follow the energy. You’re just doing something and all of a sudden everybody’s coming at you saying, “I want this, I want this, I want this.” Right? And I think it’s one of my favorite leadership approaches, is you just follow that energy. Right? And you’re like, in fact, sometimes I think when you come up with something, you can’t stop it from happening, right? It’s just like, that’s a natural, it’s following the rules of nature. It’s wanted.

Chelsea: I love that.

Vicki: So everyone’s emailing you. And did you have the name of Loliware at that time too?

Chelsea: No, at that time, and I was always tasked in the company with naming everything. It’s always been kind of a fun side project for me. And so first it was Jelloware, then we got a cease and desist from Kraft and they’re like, “You can’t use that.” Let’s be Loliware, it sounds more fun. And it evokes this notion of tableware and edibility, because lolly in Europe actually means something sweet or something edible, like a candy. So we thought it’d be cute, and it has LOL in it, which makes you laugh when you say it.

Vicki: That’s so good. Awesome. So now the big challenge is, oh my God, you were playing in your kitchen and came up with something. How do you actually take something like this to market? So this is I guess where the science nerd seriously kicks in. And where did you go from there? How did you get to the next level?

Chelsea: You know, there were so many consulting projects going on at this time. We were really killing it in the sustainable design consulting space, and we had projects going on with about 12 or so other small, medium, large companies. And I was always managing the leads if you will, coming in for Loliware. So I was really managing Loliware the whole time, and I was like, “Hey girls, I think we should talk. I’m really jazzed about all the interest Loliware is receiving, and I want to turn this into its own company. I don’t want to do consulting anymore.” So I had to sit down, and Ingrid said, “That sounds great. I don’t want to do that.” Monica said, “That sounds great. I actually want to leave the company and go do this other thing.” And then Leanne says, “I want to join

Chelsea and take Loliware.”

Chelsea: So we basically divided all of our assets. Leanne and I got Loliware, everything Loliware related, and then Ingrid took everything on the consulting and we basically divided and conquered. Ingrid moved along with The Way We See The World, which is still in existence, and she’s still doing a great job with it. And Leanne and I took the helm at Loliware, and at this time it’s just unreal. Press every week, investor interest every week, potential orders. And we decide that we’re going to raise money, and that’s when Shark Tank contacted us and said, “Hey, we want you to apply to this show.”

Vicki: All right, so when you went on Shark Tank, did you actually have a product?

Chelsea: So we basically, I left this out. When Leanne and I took the helm, we joined an incubator kitchen to be able to produce prototypes and samples, and we just wanted to keep momentum. So we did that for a while, and we graduated to another kitchen called The Organic Food Incubator. To make a long story short, when we went on Shark Tank, we could make 500 cups a day, which is not a lot.

Vicki: Yeah, not a lot. But it is demonstrating…

Chelsea: So we went on Shark…

Vicki: … the project. Right? So you can say, “This is possible, now we just need money to scale up.”

Chelsea: Yes, that’s right. We have the interest, we have the demand, now we need money to scale, and let’s do this. And so when we went on Shark Tank, we said to ourselves, we really want Mark Cuban to invest in us. He’s most aligned with us on technology and on innovation, and we think he has a lot of great sales leads, all the stadiums and sporting that he’s involved in, the hotels, et cetera. We went on Shark Tank and whole round was $1 million in notes. That got us set up. And then we faced a lot of challenges with scaling the cup.

Vicki: Yeah, I can imagine. How do you, it’s so technical to get to that next level, right? So did you partner with labs? Did you partner with, did you hire people? How did you think about solving that problem, staying in your expertise and then surrounding yourself with what you needed?

Chelsea: I learned so much, and one day I’ll write a book about this, but Leanne and I never were good at really knowing who to bring on when. I think that’s a real skill that I’ve honed in on over the years, is who do we need and when, and what are we good at, and what do we suck at? Had a lot of problems with understanding that aspect of it. We floundered a lot with operational consultants, food science consultants, got screwed over a bunch, encountered bad people, everything that could have gone wrong did, and we definitely learned a bunch.

Chelsea: And okay, so you know, when you think about why startups fail, there’s typically a few reasons. You run out of gas, run out of money, poor leadership or not pivoting fast enough. And I think to give us credit, we knew when to pivot away from the cup and into a new material and a new product that was easier to scale and more timely. That’s really the pivot from the cup to the straw which occurred in 2017.

Vicki: Was your vision that you’re going to replace every plastic straw on the planet? Is that how you started thinking about that with straws, or tell us what was going through your mind as you did that pivot?

Chelsea: What was going through our mind was that we were producing $4 cups, and we really needed to get down to a very inexpensive material cost, and in order to do that, cheaper inputs and a scalable product that could be extruded. I assembled a team of bioengineers, chemists, food technologists, even a seaweed biologist, and we formed a contracted team of experts, and we worked with them for 18 months, and we eventually pivoted from using red algae to using brown algae, which is derived from kelp, which is massively cheaper and just a better utilization of seaweed for so many different reasons, aside from cost and performance. So we did that.

Chelsea: We successfully pivoted to this straw with a new material, and I guess what was going through our minds was that at the time, straws were just beginning to get banned, and it’s such a high velocity product of 360 billion per year. Gosh, even if we could replace 10% wouldn’t that be a huge win? And that’s what we’re focused on now, replacing 36 billion straws.

Vicki: What is the path to market for something like that? How do you, you know, you’re not opening a Loliware store. Are you licensing the formula? What’s your plan around how you get to 36 billion straws? Oh my God. And saying it out loud, that’s a lot of straws.

Chelsea: Well, we learned a lot from being an end to end manufacturer of the cup that it’s really hard. We don’t want to be manufacturers. We want to be an innovation technology company. So we pivoted from not only the cup to the straw, but from end to end manufacturing to licensing. So now what we have created is a really delicious licensing package, which allows a plastic manufacturer to license the material patents and the process patents from us. And what we do is we allow them to make the straw, and then we bring a lot of brand equity and demands. So it’s not like, “Hey, license this, we think there is a market,” it’s “License this and service our customers.”

Chelsea: This year we’ll launch with Marriott, Pernod Ricard, PS1 MoMA, and a couple others I can’t mention. And then next year is a really big corporate play, once we come down the cost curve with our scaled production. So for a licensing company, that means I’m not making straws. That’s great. So how did we do that? So we basically developed our pilot line, which comes online in January of 2020, which allows us to make 100 million straws a year. And that first pilot line will be with the licensee, and then we’ll be working on Gen Two to get some more volume. But it gives you a sense of, by January we’re making a lot of straws.

Vicki: That’s fantastic. We are in a real hurry to solve for these challenges, right? Our oceans are full. And then you recently went on a bit of an expedition to one of these awful places in the ocean where there’s a ton of plastic that’s been gathered. I don’t know what the right term is for it, but you want to tell us a little bit about what you’ve seen out in the ocean and why this is so important to you?

Chelsea: Yes. So I was recently down in Bermuda for the Ocean Plastic Leadership Summit, and I’m diving out in a zone where it’s 6,000 feet deep. I’m diving around this garbage patch, and there’s so much plastic in the water, small pieces, fragments called microplastics, that it feels like I’m in a snow globe. So it’s just swirling around my face. Tiny, tiny little pieces of plastic. And the reason why it’s such a huge issue is that those tiny pieces can never really be recovered. You can never clean that up, given their scale.

Chelsea: As a result, our marine life is dying. You know, whales are dying, dolphins, small marine lifes, sea turtles are literally filled with plastic. And then when we eat fish that come from that environment, humans are ingesting plastic. So it’s estimated that every week even, humans are ingesting a credit card sized amount of microplastics. So it’s a global health concern. It’s so serious alongside global warming, it’s a really important time to step up with very big ideas to solve these problems. And Loliware is just one of millions of companies that are in the sustainability field that are absolutely critical to creating this ecosystem of solutions.

Vicki: Yeah. This is one of the things that we talk about at SheEO, how important it is. So I mean, as a young person listening to the podcast, is anybody listening to this podcast and thinking about, at this moment in time in the world as it is right now, how are you using your leadership to create a better world and to solve what we call the world’s to-do list? So first of all, I’d like to thank you very much for doing what you’re doing. And can you, if you were going to, you know, you’ve got a lot of listeners here, what is it that you would like them to think about and to do to change their behavior so that we can all be part of this change?

Chelsea: First is really important to understand that the scaling of any sort of sustainable products is so difficult, and that consumers, people can vote with their dollars by supporting new, sustainable technologies, whether it be Loliware, whether it be Tesla, or other solutions out there. Alginate, sustainable textiles, voting with your dollar. It’s very important and empowering as I think number one, choose to purchase products that are creating a better world. And number two, refuse single use plastic in general. So when you’re out, bring your own cup. When you’re getting takeout, try to bring your own containers. I know that sometimes that’s a challenge, but there are so many beautiful options out there now that enable you to do so. And Loliware certainly, when we look at the options to single use plastic, we see really interesting things happening.

Chelsea: What Loliware falls into, which is bio-based alternatives to plastic, and you’ve got the reusables movement, and both are super critical given the acceleration of our single use culture. And especially when you look at areas around the world, like around Asia for example, that’s accelerating quickly. You hear about China, the greatest impact of the internet on China is plastic waste. So meaning food delivery, how do we tackle that problem?

Chelsea: So the straw is really just the beginning. It’s the first touch point of a huge category that we’re developing at Loliware. We’ve developed over 65 different materials derived from kelp, ranging from hard plastic replacements to flexible film technologies. And we’re looking for licensing partners for every category.

Vicki: Do you have some of this stuff up on your website for people to look at or is it all pretty internal at the moment?

Chelsea: We’re overhauling our website. I’m super excited about this project. It’s an eight week long project, and it’s going to have all sorts of really fun things, like where can you find Loliware straws? Because we’re a B2B play, but we’re also a plastic free movement. We love to engage people, to share with them, like, “Hey, are you at the MoMA? Are you near the MoMA? You can find Loliware straw there. Are you going to be staying at the Marriott? You can find Loliware straw there.”

Chelsea: So it’ll be a lot of fun UX as part of this new website overhaul that we’re working on. So if, yeah, I’ll make sure to share that with you, and we can maybe put it in the blog notes when it launches. But the best place to find us for the most up to date information is on Instagram, so I’d love to keep in touch with everyone on Instagram.

Vicki: Instagram, you’re @Loliware? L-O-L-I-W-A-R-E?

Chelsea: You got it. Yeah.

Vicki: Thank you very much, Chelsea, for your time, for your brilliant mind, for your love of nature. We are so grateful for that, and for somehow getting nature to share some of her secrets with you so that you can bring this beautiful product to market. Thank you.

Chelsea: Thank you, Vicki. And it’s such an honor to be a SheEO venture, and I continue to be so inspired by this community that you’ve created. It indeed is the future. And I was recently at the UN for World Ocean Day, and the head of UN Women had a beautiful quote that I want to end on, which is, “We need more women in leadership to solve the problems of the ocean.”

Vicki: Amazing.

Chelsea: And I fundamentally believe that we bring a different lens, and that the statistics of startups failing is predominantly based on male leadership, and that SheEO represents a new model that Loliware is proud to be a part of, to reverse that statistic, that more women led companies will be successful, because our leadership and our skill sets are unique, and especially with regard to solving the problems of the ocean and the technology that’s needed to do that.

Chelsea: So thank you so much. And I also welcome everyone to understand more deeply the sustainable development goals that Vicki mentioned, the world’s to-do list. Loliware is proud to be addressing number nine, number 12 and number 13 and 14, and when you think about ideas as young people, as young women, think about those 17 goals. What does the world need? What needs to exist right now to solve those goals? And I believe that’s a beautiful framework that SheEO has incorporated, and that Loliware is definitely implementing. So lots of love to everyone listening. Please reach out to us on Instagram, and we look forward to keeping in touch with everyone.

Vicki: Thank you Chelsea. Really appreciate it.

Chelsea: Thank you.

Vicki: Thank you for listening to the SheEO.world podcast. If this conversation resonated with you, please share it with a friend and subscribe on your favorite podcast player. If you’d like more information about SheEO, please visit us at SheEO.world. That’s S-H-E-E-O, dot world.

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