Every year, only six circular economy startups make it through the tough selection process of the Green Alley Award. At the evening of the Grand Finale, those six finalists present their circular economy ideas in a five-minute pitch live on stage to the jury. The jury consists of Landbell Group circular economy experts, including CEO Jan Patrick Schulz; the previous winner of the Green Alley Award; and the CEO of Green Alley Award partner and Germany’s leading crowdfunding platform, Seedmatch. This year, the jury welcomes three new members: Mari-Ann Meigo Fonseca, CEO of Gelatex Technologies and 2019 winner; Martin Wright chair of Positive News and Green Alley Award partner; and Tim Scholz, CFO at Landbell Group.
Last year, Gelatex technologies convinced the jury with their sustainable alternative to leather, made of gelatin. CEO and founder Mari-Ann has a background in the textile and fashion industry and used to work as a garment technologist. Watching how much pollution and waste the industry produced made her think about ways to make mass-scale production more sustainable. During her MBA studies in Entrepreneurship and Technology Management, she met Märt-Erik Martens, a materials scientist who was working on an interesting technology that Mari-Ann thought could be a solution to the fashion industry’s pollution problem. In 2016, Mari-Ann and Märt-Erik founded Gelatex Technologies.
‘Gelatex Technologies develops an eco-friendly, easily scalable leather-like textile to tackle the problem that almost all leather is made using toxic chemicals. Gelatex is a nanofibrous material made of gelatin – a natural protein derived by upcycling the by-products of meat industries. In this way, we avoid waste and can make an eco-friendly, non-toxic material that is very similar to leather, yet comes in rolls, has a consistent quality and is easy to implement in mass-production,’ explains Mari-Ann.
The current economic situation makes it particularly difficult for smaller enterprises, as they usually do not have a financial cushion to compensate for a downturn in orders. However, Gelatex made the most of the recent pandemic by adapting their production to manufacturing face masks. Startups need a lot of willpower and perseverance to establish a business. A lesson that Mari-Ann herself has already learnt and wants to share with the finalists.
‘In the summer of 2018, it felt like nothing was moving forward. We didn’t make much progress for a while and we started to feel insecure about whether anybody actually cares about what we do . Our motivation dipped and I even considered finishing things with Gelatex. Luckily, Gelatex co-founder Märt-Erik did not let me give up that easily and I had a pilgrimage walk planned at the beginning of August. Nine days of walking 200km from Portugal to Spain cleared my mind and, in autumn, everything started to get better. There were big improvements in development, customers started to reach out to us, journalists wanted to write about us, and some collaborations started as well. So, sometimes when there is a low point, it is just necessary to take a little break and let it pass. Since then everything has moved forward. There have been many highlights, but I think the most memorable and thrilling one was when large, well-known brands started to get in touch with us.’
Apart from her expertise in textile, clothing and new materials development, as well as customer validation, Mari-Ann knows how to convince people of an idea. ‘Make your presentation simple so that even your grandmother could understand it. There’s no need to be too technical, just memorable,’ she advises the future Green Alley Award finalists.
Martin is a highly experienced speaker, writer and adviser on sustainability and positive futures. Formerly Editor in Chief of Green Futures (now The Futures Centre) and Director of Forum for the Future (India), he has a broad business network, ranging from the Ethical Corporation to We Mean Business. He has worked with Greenpeace, WWF, Unilever and governments in the UK, India and China. He has spoken at and chaired events for The Guardian, the UK Government, the UN and others in London, New York, Delhi, Mumbai, Beijing and Beirut. He also serves as Master of Ceremonies at the annual World Sustainable Development Summit in Delhi.
Martin explains the assets he brings to the Green Alley Award jury: ‘As a journalist, I’ve tracked the evolution of the circular economy over the last 25 years (before it even had that name!), whether as editor of Green Futures and other magazines, or a writer for The Guardian , among others. I’ve interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs in this field over the years, and seen them go on to succeed – or fail – gaining something of a sense of what works, and what doesn’t. I’ve sat as a judge on several sustainability award schemes, including the Ashden Awards, Responsible Business Awards, Global Good Awards, Guardian Sustainable Business Awards, and others. And I have some small experience in the world of sustainability start-ups, too, having been involved with several, directly or in an advisory capacity, so have some first-hand understanding of the challenges in getting a small business off the ground, and what it’s like to succeed – or fail.’
Knowing the industry for this long, Martin is convinced that startups play an essential role in achieving the change from a linear to a circular economy: ’We need radical, imaginative, innovative approaches – coming at the problem from new angles, with new energy. Those are exactly the sort of qualities that start-ups can provide: fresh thinking, fresh passion – and a bracing impatience to make things happen!’
Martin believes that startup awards like the Green Alley Award are the ideal platform for early stage entrepreneurs: ‘Starting up any new venture is a scary prospect, so it can be hugely helpful to see that others who’ve also started from scratch, like you, can overcome the challenges and make a success of it.’
However, the award does not only provide opportunities to startups, it gives inspiration to larger players, too – whether in business or government. ‘When they see the entrepreneurial fire brought to the challenge by a start-up, they are reminded that there is energy and determination out there to tackle the problem: if start-ups can do it, then the big battalions should be able to do it, too. Start-ups can provide a very useful and timely prod, to shake major players out of their complacency and spur them into action.’
Being a successful speaker himself, Martin advises the finalists to act natural on stage: ‘Be yourself: don’t pretend to be someone you’re not; don’t try to squash yourself into some idea of what a successful pitcher looks or sounds like. You’ll come over best if you’re natural. It’s fine to be a bit nervous: it can actually be quite disarming. Take a deep breath – make eye contact – and smile. And you’re away!’
Tim started his position as CFO of Landbell Group in August 2019. He has a professional background in manufacturing, construction and project management. He started his professional career in consulting, followed by several years with the Bilfinger Group in finance positions in Germany, Hungary and Switzerland. In 2014, he returned to Germany to become CFO of Dematic for Central Europe (since 2016 part of the KION Group).
Even though he is still new to the team, Tim is excited about this new circular economy adventure: ‘With my rather commercial background from another industry and being new to the CE industry, I am curious to learn more about the innovation and technologies in this field. For me, it is always important to find a link between an idea, a technology or a business model and the customer needs, paired with sustainable financial potential. There are many examples of how a great technology or product needs to be perceived as such at the right time by the right audience. I will try to focus on these aspects as a jury member.’
Tim regards the Green Alley Award as an important stepping stone on the way to building a successful business: ‘I think it is crucial to identify new technologies and/or services quickly and to support their development to reach a marketable stage. The Green Alley Award is traditionally a platform to raise visibility, to coach the entrepreneurs, and to support the winner financially. It takes time and resilience to establish a sustainable business model. We made it our mission to help the startups with our feedback and support, which should be an additional brick, or even cornerstone, on their way to success. Any participant is a winner already from the start, as they have something new that they work on and are convinced of.’