Music and Microbiology: A Case Study from Nyoka Labs

This is one of a series of case studies on lessons learned from starting sustainable businesses!

  • Don’t just get excited about a solution because you have the skills to pull it off.
  • Your ‘side’ talents before entrepreneurship become the niche no one else can occupy.
  • Don’t try to get everything done yourself. This isn’t school. But if you’re willing to take a risk, it’s ALL about trusting yourself.

5 years ago, you could meet Paige Whitehead and NEVER have imagined her being an entrepreneur. She’s the kind of person that loves microbiology and music festivals, not mergers and acquisitions! Yet, here we are in 2021 and Paige is the Founder of Nyoka Design Labs, a business that started EXACTLY with Paige’s love for microbiology and music festivals.

At these festivals, she noticed a surprisingly large number of plastic glowsticks being thrown away. Paige never liked the plastic in them. And then, she found out even more about the toxic chemicals in glowsticks! Some have chemicals that can kill cells or damage DNA. Almost none are recyclable, meaning they WILL end up being thrown away and possibly leak chemicals into the environment. Noticing this unique problem is what put Paige on the road to where she is today.

Left: Paige Whitehead. Right: Yamila Franco. Cofounders, Nyoka Design Labs.

Nyoka Design Labs is a company that wants to create a world with sustainable biotechnology. Usually, we think about controversial debates when it comes to biotechnology. For Paige though, biotechnology offered the tools needed to make a positive change in the world! Also, she just REALLY (really) loved bioluminescence…

Today, Nyoka has created the world’s first bioluminescent glowstick, the Light Wand. They’re also creating new products, like reusable bracelets that create photoluminescent light. Alongside the lack of harmful chemicals, Nyoka is also guided by sustainability in other aspects. They use plastic-free packaging for their products, donate 1% of their revenue to support indigenous communities, and reduce waste/recycle waste/turn waste into biochar where possible. (Biochar is a soil-additive that captures atmospheric carbon which specifically helps microorganisms thrive.)

So how did all these changes get started? Well, it was quite an unexpected journey to say the least!

When Paige learned about the problem with glowsticks, she was studying microbiology and environmental sciences as a university student. So, she immediately wanted to use microbiology to get out of this mess. When she spoke to researchers, professors, and companies though, they told her it couldn’t be done.

Still, Paige kept the idea in the back of her mind as she continued learning about bioluminescence around the world. What changed though, was when she worked at another sustainable startup that was producing permeable pavement. It was just incredible for her to see the potential for businesses to make a change, which is what led her to start Nyoka Design Labs.

Of course, Paige just had an idea and a dream to make a change at this point. She also knew that the first iteration of the Light Wand would be expensive — would anyone even buy it? Also, it was hard for her to even call herself an entrepreneur given her scientific background. The biggest thing that helped her was joining sustainability-focused startup incubators like Project Zero and meeting Yamila Franco, her cofounder! The community around her taught her everything from how to develop a business plan to how to get grants.

One of the biggest issues that Nyoka had in the early days was simply cash flow. As Paige puts it, she ‘was a very broke university student’ :-) Still, she focused on doing the things she could in spite of the money constraints. That meant networking, learning how to do basic accounting, working a part-time job to save money, and answering THOUSANDS of customer emails… Now though, Paige’s hard work pays off. The relationships she’s formed allow her to have support in everyday tasks that might otherwise cost thousands of dollars!

After this incredible journey full of learning, they launched a Kickstarter Campaign to sell 100 Light Wands and ended up raising $9000 USD to reinvest in the company and prove traction. This was the start of a lot of good, hard work to come! Still, Nyoka is working to figure things out to this day. They’re scaling their sales and shipping, preparing for their first investment round, and winning startup competitions. Also, they’re scaling up their team with the help of the Canadian government’s wage subsidies for sustainable businesses!

Paige showing a secret-ish glow from the Light Wand ;-)
  • They made $9000 USD from selling 100 units of their first product on Kickstarter. In 2020, they’re just starting to sell at larger scales with their new online store.
  • Profit margins vary based on the stage of product development. They could range from losing money (in prototype testing), breaking even (hopefully with early sales), to making a profit once production is more streamlined! Then, they achieve between 50–100% margins.
  • To date, they’ve initiated 530+ events that used glowsticks without plastics.
  • They JUST raised $320,000 after getting into one of the world’s top science accelerators, Indie Bio!

The biggest thing that Paige thinks they should’ve done differently is very deeply understanding the problem instead of falling in love with the solution. For a long time, Nyoka was trying to develop its Light Wand from their original idea. In the end, they did have a product. But it still needed more development to bring the costs down (it currently costs around $80 USD). Typical glowsticks today range from a few dollars/pack at a Dollar Store to industrial glowsticks for $15 USD.

To work their way down to this range of prices, Nyoka now has a research team dedicated to bringing the cost down and improving the bioluminescent system! But Paige knew this would take a while, was growing to understand the many ways glow sticks are used, and was also the ‘photoluminescent glow expert’ at now partner-company, Core Glow. So, she began to develop another alternative which is ready now, is reusable, and solves part of the overall problem!

Now, they’ve better listened to their customers’ needs to develop bracelets that are based on photoluminescent light. These cost under $10 USD and are reusable, plastic-free, and non-toxic. Who knows where Nyoka would be without stopping to understand their customers’ needs?

Another thing that worked well for Paige was not worrying about other people ‘stealing’ their idea. In fact, she did the opposite and told everyone who would care to listen! This didn’t harm Nyoka. Instead, it unlocked doors to finding opportunities, future employees, and networking. Paige recommends learning about intellectual property law regarding ‘public disclosure’ (ex. you have one year to patent anything that could be patented in Canada). But asides from that, Paige recommends that you believe in yourself enough to know that even if someone wanted to copy you — you’d be far enough ahead and doing your work in your own way.

The biggest piece of advice Paige would give other founders is to train the skill of radical empathy, both for yourself and for others. Soft skills like knowing how to respect yourself are ESSENTIAL for managing a team of people. And regardless of what industry you’re working in (or even if you’re going about day-to-day life), this skill continues to prove useful time and time again.

Also, don’t even think about doing everything yourself! All of Nyoka’s products, growth, and expansion have happened due to some amazing partnerships. The mentors Paige has met have also supported her own growth as well as the company’s. She’s awestruck by how many of her own preconceptions about ‘big bad businesses’ have changed since she became a business owner! It’s definitely an eye-opening journey full of new perspectives, which Paige recommends for everyone to try!

If you found that case study helpful, GO THANK Nyoka for making this possible!! And check out the next case study here :-)

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Madhav Malhotra

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/