If you look up the words ‘passion’ and ‘drive’ in an entrepreneur’s dictionary you might find Paige Whitehead listed under ‘passion,’ and Yamila Franco under ‘drive.’ The duo are the motivation and the talent behind a biodegradable light source manufacturing company that is winning awards for its savvy innovation.
Nyoka Design Labs is the result of a collaboration between Paige and Yamila that came about after they met as students three years ago. Paige had already had the bright idea and patent for what they call “the world’s first earth-friendly glow stick” after seeing plastic glow sticks littered across the working farm that hosted the Shambhala music festival in B.C. In meeting Yamila at a knowledge mobilization series at UVIC where Paige was pitching the concept, she found the ideal partner to help realize her vision.
Synergy Enterprises was among the first to understand the product’s potential, inviting the duo to participate in their eco-business incubator program, Project Zero in 2019. There, they gained the confidence to assertively seek funding and mentorship as they prepared their Light Wand for market.
“Project Zero was key for us,” remembers Paige. “We left the program not as volunteers with an idea that could change the world, but as innovators with a business product, with the knowledge to grow a team, access funding and participate in investment rounds. And then we started to switch our focus around scaling our impact and focusing on what that impact will look like.”
Fast Track to Success
Barely a year after completing Project Zero, they’ve witnessed their Kickstarter campaign raised over $10,000, received over $100,000 in grant funding through Eco Canada’s Clean Leadership and Career Launcher program, were accepted into W Venture, a digital accelerator program partly supported by UVIC and VIATEC, won the People’s Choice Award at the League of Innovator’s Founder Showcase and received a $9,500 grant from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program, partnering with the UBC Materials and Manufacturing Research Institute’s Circular Economy Seed Funding Initiative.
Their idea for reimagining the glow stick has also won them a national competition. Nyoka Design Labs was a winner in the start-up category of the 2020 Canadian Export Challenge (CXC) final showdown pitch competition, netting them another $5,000 in funding for their business; this as they prepare for another crowdfunding campaign to push them even further.
The eco-entrepreneurs remember the day they won. “We’d advanced from the regional competition first, and then advanced to the national, and of course it all had to happen in the virtual space because of social distancing requirements. And everything happened all at once, which meant we ended up doing the final pitch from a coffee shop in Courtenay because my home internet connection was not working. Everyone in the coffee shop was silent as they listened to us pitch – so we had an audience, just not the one we had expected at the outset. All the craziness of trying to connect, and hoping the Wi-Fi connection would last, overrode my nerves and we pulled it off!”
Cultivating diverse demand for biodegradable product
Along with pandemic-induced social distancing rules came the awareness that the consumer market their glow sticks were initially intended for had disappeared, along with the music and performance festivals they thought they would be sold at.
“We were aware immediately that our primary events and conference market was off the table for now,” says Paige, “and that was disappointing because we’d been getting daily emails from events wanting to sell our product right up until lockdown.”
Fortunately for the co-founders, they had already started exploring other markets for the glow stick so that they would have a diverse customer base. One they had already identified was for humanitarian aid workers in disaster-stricken areas.
“We’ve really been doing a lot of outreach,” says Paige, “asking a lot of questions, and forming relationships that help propel our research and development team. We asked who would be able to use this product? Is it the fishing industry, is it a firefighter? Is it useful for remote communities without access to recycling or composting services? We’re going to continue asking those questions and looking for diverse markets.”
The dynamic duo says they realized early that bringing a product to market also successfully depended on the team they brought together to do it, and on the culture of the business they created. “Our foundation for success is our team,” says Yamila, and Paige agrees, saying “I’m so inspired by everyone. It’s just been a brilliant evolution, that shift from being co-founders to being part of a team, where people participate as co-entrepreneurs and problem solvers that are as invested in our product as we are.”
Intentional growth aligned with eco-focused values
As Nyoka Design Lab continues its growth trajectory its founders say they want that growth to remain aligned with their shared values and passion for the circular economy. Says Yamila, “that value system is crucial in helping define the product lines we’ll develop and the approach we’ll take moving forward. We know we are pushing back on the plastics industry, but we will also be pushing on policy making and innovation and regeneration. We’re continuing to act with passion for climate change mitigation, we’re not going to be driven only by profit margins.”
They are also heartened by the growing awareness that you can be an environmentalist and a businessperson. “I see people caring way more about being eco-conscious business owners,” says Paige, “and it’s great because it makes sense financially to care, to begin with. It costs Canada to continue with the linear production model and to recover plastic waste. I think Canada is waking up to that, which makes it easier for us to succeed because we have alternatives that are viable.”
Paige is excited about where they are headed. When she thinks back to three years ago and the germ of a vision, she cannot believe how far she has come. “This product and our business has transformed my whole life in ways that I never could have imagined for myself. I can’t wait for what comes next.”