At The Greener Manufacturing Show 2023, we spoke with KUORI CEO and Founder Sarah Harbarth about the growth and ambitions of the company as it develops its novel materials.
Could you introduce yourself and your research background?
I'm Sarah, CEO and founder of KUORI, a company focused on turning waste into material. We're a startup based in Switzerland, specializing in alternative plastics. We utilize upcycling streams, like walnut shred and olive pits, to create granules like the ones you saw earlier. Our focus is on applications where microplastic abrasion occurs in the environment, since these microplastics cannot decompose. Examples include shoe soles and wheels. We're based in Zurich, Switzerland, and are a spinoff from a university.
How did you come up with the idea of upcycling food byproducts?
The idea originated during my studies in product and industrial design, where we had a course on alchemistics, focused on finding new resources and moving away from fossil-based ones. Initially, I experimented with banana peels, a side stream, and now we're using walnut shred and olive pits. There are many underutilized resources, and my exploration into biopolymers led to founding the company.
Image Credit: KUORI
How specifically does your approach tackle microplastic pollution?
Our material is biobased and biodegradable, meaning it's industrially compostable and can decompose within 90 days under the right conditions. However, we're also conducting tests with an external university on microplastic abrasion, specifically its decomposition in soil and water. The tests are ongoing, but we anticipate decomposition within one to two years.
How do your materials compare to traditional materials in terms of performance and production?
We compare our materials to standard TPUs and PUs. The performance is quite similar, although we're still refining aspects like abrasion resistance and water uptake. Our focus is on creating biopolymers that don't absorb too much water but can still decompose effectively.
Image Credit: KUORI
Can you tell me more about the biopolymer matrix?
The specific recipe is confidential, but it involves biocompounding, combining biofillers like walnut shred and olive pits with green additives. Our first material is 70% biobased and still biodegradable. We're also developing a second material that's 100% biobased and biodegradable, supported by a Eurostars project funded by the European Union.
Could you tell us more about your partnerships and collaborations?
We started with Wildling in the minimal shoe sector. We're involved in various pilots across industries like fashion and outdoor, focusing on applications like handles, shoe soles, skateboard wheels, stroller wheels, and watch straps. However, due to NDAs, I can't name all our partners.
Image Credit: KUORI
Which application areas do you think will be biggest for you in the future?
The automotive industry is a promising area due to its need for change. The outdoor industry is also significant, given its environmental impact. Fashion is another key area.
Could you discuss your role in transitioning towards a post-oil economy?
Our focus is on elastic products that are biobased and biodegradable. We see ourselves at the forefront in this niche. Our direction may adapt based on industry needs, but we're currently focused on the outdoor industry.
What are the biggest challenges you're facing at the moment?
The main challenge is changing the mindset around recycling and raising awareness about biodegradation and the use of alternative plastics. Another hurdle is obtaining various certifications as a small company. Each certificate has different requirements, like ensuring food safety. We're prioritizing the most relevant certifications for our initial market entry.
What are your immediate next steps?
Upscaling production is a major step. We're working on pilot projects with bigger brands to refine our materials based on feedback.
Is there anyone in particular you'd love to work with in the future?
I'd love to collaborate with companies like Patagonia, Nike, Adidas, Salomon, and other fashion-related brands.
About Sarah Harbarth
Sarah Harbarth is the Founder and CEO of KUORI, a cleantech startup focused on sustainable materials. She has a strong background in industrial design and a deep commitment to sustainability. Sarah's career journey includes working as a Scientific Assistant at the Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz FHNW, where she contributed to research in materials and process innovation. She has also been involved in female entrepreneurship initiatives and holds a degree in Industrial Design. Sarah's entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with her expertise in sustainable materials, positions her as a key player in the field of circular economy and innovative material science.
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