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6 months, 76 startups, 5 lessons: reflections from The Single-Use Plastic Challenge 2022
31 Oct 2022
Set to make up 70% of food packaging within the next couple of years, the proliferation of single-use plastics (SUPs) is one of the greatest threats facing both ocean and human health in Southeast Asia. Such a huge challenge cannot be tackled alone, so 10 months ago, The Incubation Network reached out to 8 Entrepreneur Support Organizations (ESOs) to help us scout out startups tackling this issue.
The SUP Challenge was ambitious – audacious, even. Our goal was to source and support startups through our network of ESOs to remove as many SUPs from the food and beverage businesses’ operations as possible. The program, only running for 6 months, aimed for pilot partnerships to take flight between solution providers (startups) and foodservice businesses to stress test existing systems. This required intense planning and coordination to discuss, iterate, and improve on solutions to meet the needs of the foodservice industry.
The network effect allowed us to work with 76 startups and 57 foodservice businesses. From removing SUPs used to transport bulk ingredients and swapping out SUPs for bio alternatives, to re-imagining meal delivery systems and deploying refill stations to rural patrons, the startups engaged are addressing different parts of the foodservice plastic value chain.
The exploration of solutions made available in our region is exciting and truly an eye-opener. Despite the myriad models, there were a surprising number of similarities in the lessons we learned through this process: here are my five biggest takeaways.
1: Circularity still has an image issue
Startups are facing a double challenge: there is a lack of awareness from mainstream business and consumers around existing solutions to plastic pollution, and an assumption that such solutions are of lower or different quality from SUPs. These obstruct their growth as they need to explain what they do AND why they are doing it, to potential partners and consumers.
We saw this with Nano Onions, one of our supported startups in Thailand producing wheat straws that look fairly ‘natural’ with a grainy texture, but have the feel of plastic.
Their mentor felt conflicted by their straws’ plastic-like quality, which would not be deemed favorable by foodservice operators that want to portray a strong sustainability image. It felt like plastic alternatives had to look and perform differently from plastics in order to fulfill user education on eco options.
This insight demonstrates how important it is for us in the sustainability space to advocate and amplify the upsides of circular solutions and commend businesses that are adopting such solutions.
2: Global change comes from local solutions
Across Asia, we have observed varied availability of local solutions to address the SUP problem. This made sourcing solutions an interesting challenge as we tried to adapt the program for each country. To broaden the pilot experimentation, not only homegrown initiatives were supported, but so were foreign startups interested in scaling into other Asian markets. This led to different kinds of learning challenges, as we juggled adapting solutions to the local context, and assessing viability of future local production to reduce the environmental impacts associated with exporting materials into or exporting products out of the country.
Some of our strongest solutions were designed for their context, from the ground up.
For instance, Micro Vending Tech that had successfully introduced petrol dispensary machines to a rural Thailand community had pivoted their model to dispense cleaning supplies at dine-in restaurants, welcoming the foodservice operators and their patrons to refill micro amounts of cleaning supplies from a machine they are familiar with.
Similarly, we saw the rebrand of Aya Cup in Vietnam, a reusable cup business, to NOPA, a digital application that incentivizes consumers to bring their own cups to participating pilot foodservice companies. This adaptation comes after understanding local consumers’ reluctance to circulate reusable cups and weeks of co-development with foodservice operators to minimize logistical pain points.
3: Some hurdles are universal
While local solutions are often the strongest, some challenges our startups were facing transcended borders or boundaries, which should be a rallying cry for systemic change.
Consumers generally prefer easy swaps, like sustainable forms of disposable packaging, over behavior changes, such as taking reusable containers to refill stations.
However, even if consumers were willing to change their habits, there is a lack of physical infrastructure, political support, and industrial regulation to enable these alternatives. These pose costly and time-consuming hurdles to startups that may not have access to expertise to navigate such challenges.
To accelerate these regulatory and social shifts, we need to stop waiting for perfect solutions, and instead, keep experimenting with alternatives to devise new ways of consuming and using. Only by learning through doing will we reach the critical mass of support we need to sway systemic change.
4: Shift from competition to collaboration
Personally, one of the most rewarding parts of this program has been watching startups transition from competitive to collaborative mindsets with the support from our ESOs. The concept of pilots paved ways for co-creation between startups and foodservice operators, resulting in diverse solutioning and knowledge exchange within and between cohorts.
A great example of this came from dine-in vegan restaurant Broccoli Revolution and delivery service GoodFoodLoop. Together, they developed a meal plan subscription, where customers can order three or five meals from the restaurant, to be delivered in reusable containers that can be refilled.
This collaborative approach opened up revenue options for both startups and foodservice operators to experiment, delivering a win-win situation.
By focusing on the process, instead of striving to become perfect, participants created time and space to co-learn, customize and iterate new versions of their offerings. This wasn’t restricted to the startups: two ESOs, Seedstars and Instellar, collaborated on a peer-to-peer support session for their startup cohorts from across Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Despite their geographical differences, startups from different countries quickly realized they were facing similar challenges.
“Every startup felt a sense of camaraderie, and that they are not alone in their journey” Rizky, Associate Head of Program at Instellar fed back to me. The startups were attempting to solve the same issues differently, and the peer-to-peer engagement enabled them to learn from each other, leaving them inspired with fresh ideas. Shared challenges provide opportunities to share solutions – and build better alternatives, together.
5: Learning is the foundation of innovation
All of these lessons boil down to one message: learning is critical to success. Startups, ESOs and F&B partners were all open to change and learning, which was fundamental to creating conditions for success.
I had the opportunity to visit the Hyatt Regency Danang Resort, a foodservice partner engaged by ESO Evergreen Labs in Da Nang, Vietnam. I watched as the kitchen staff and decision-makers shared how the solutions provided by three startups (HopeBox, iBag and Galaxy Biotech) were incorporated into kitchen operations, and how these solutions compare to the SUPs they were hoping to phase out. Together, they were assessing how the solutions would meet their needs, identifying scope for improvement, and collaboratively developing new practices and habits.
For startups, the biggest hurdles to success are finding feedback to improve their solutions and the funding to grow it.
Programs like The SUP Challenge remove these barriers by giving innovators the flexibility to learn, the funding to cover pilot costs, and the connection to accelerate their market entry. This enabling atmosphere is entirely replicable and scalable – and I would encourage others to adopt it, whether in an accelerator or just internally in your own organization’s operations.
I thoroughly enjoyed the journey of uncovering innovative solutions and embarking on this highly interactive program to support startups in disrupting the SUPs entrenched so deeply in foodservice operations. The pilots of this program require consistent participation from ESOs, startups, and foodservice partners, and I am thankful to have been working with some of the most supportive communities in this region aspiring for circularity.
The SUP Challenge is the window to understanding the need for systems change, and how this can become a reality with increased collaboration between stakeholders of an industry. To reach the potential of a circular economy, we can’t wait and hope for the perfect solution to land in our laps; we need to move together to co-develop infrastructure, policies, and solutions. This will enable alternatives to take flight across sectors and industries.
If early-stage startups can do it, at the most intense stages of their growth, the rest of us can too.
I hope my lessons have left you some food for thought. The Incubation Network will be publishing a full insights report at the end of November to reflect on what worked well in the program, what our startups achieved, and what this could mean for the future of single use plastics. We will also be releasing a playbook documenting the approaches taken by our network of ESOs to enable circular interventions as seen in this program.