In April, Good News from Finland published a breaking news story about a Finnish startup collecting a million euros in its recent funding round. The company was Sulapac, and its innovation aims to challenge the dominance of plastic in packaging.
The article was by far the most popular of the week on Good News, and it brought a fair few people to knock on the company’s founders Suvi Haimi and Laura Kyllönen’s, if not doors, at least email inboxes. In hindsight, we admit: perhaps our choice of stock photo wasn’t great.
“A lot of people asked us if we do see-through packaging materials for food,” Haimi says laughingly. “One day we hopefully will, but not right now.”
Sulapac material is based on wood and natural adhesive, which makes it biodegradable. It can also be mass-produced using methods and facilities that now make plastic, and it can make the cut for almost any kind of packaging.
However, Sulapac is proceeding segment by segment, first aiming for the cosmetics market. The idea stems from the founding duo’s everyday experiences, or to be more exact, their bathroom shelves.
“We were both frustrated by the fact that although the cosmetics product itself is ecological, the package around it isn’t,” Haimi explains. “It was a problem we both wanted to tackle.”
A multi-talented team in action
Saving the world from the mountains and isles of plastic wasn’t what drove Haimi and Kyllönen, two academics working in medicine and biomaterials, to entrepreneurship. If anything, the opposite happened.
“First, we decided to start a company together, and only then got the business idea,” Haimi notes. “I’d just been offered a position as an assistant professor at a university in the US, but becoming an entrepreneur was much more tempting.”
The material wouldn’t have been brought into existence without the presence of Onbone founders Petro Lahtinen and Antti Pärssinen. Their expertise added the much-needed wood into the mix.
“Laura and I are the innovators and founders, but we always want to emphasise Petro and Anssi’s crucial input as well,” Haimi emphasises.
With the million-euro funding, the material for cosmetics packaging concept is in further development. Sulapac is already collaborating with luxury cosmetics brand Niki Newd.
In the future, new segments will be conquered. Haimi deems premium food packaging a potential next step.
The long-term vision is to make Sulapac the dominating material in packaging. It can compete against plastic in almost every category, including price and resistance to water and grease. Only if the product needs to be stored for several years, plastic still beats Sulapac.
To pivot or not to pivot
The global plastic problem is no news to anyone, so it’s difficult not to wonder why no one’s ever come up with Sulapac or its equivalent before.
Haimi gets asked that a lot, too.
“We’ve been contemplating the same thing!” she says. “Traditionally eco-friendly materials have been deemed inferior to plastic because they’re considered costly, unattractive and less durable.”
Hence it’s not enough to keep costs down and endure the same conditions as plastic. Appearance matters as well.
“No one buys a luxury lotion in an ugly jar,” Haimi states.
On top of fancy looks, Sulapac is investigating ways to stretch the material to tubes and bottles. If all goes to plan, one day Haimi and Kyllönen will have their inside-out ecological bathrooms.
However, first global brands need to take the steps required to ‘environmentalise’ the status quo of packaging. Many are keen: Haimi tells that Sulapac has received requests from producers of all sorts interested in utilising the innovation.
The idea is to stay mainly virtual by selling licenses and direct sales of the product using a carefully selected supply chain. The two-woman team is to grow with a few employees, and the near future will show how big the team will eventually be.
Nothing is set in stone though.
“For a startup, the first few months dictate the general direction. We’re agile and ready to pivot and change our business model if needs be.”