Nyoka Design Labs produces biodegradable light wands with bioluminescence to replace toxic chemical glow sticks. Their cell-free, enzyme-based light wands are shelf stable and meet industry standards for brightness and duration. They are now selling these light wands for commercial uses, such as events and festivals, with plans to expand into industrial uses such as marine fishing and search-and-rescue operations. Nyoka’s mission is to replace the one billion toxic, single-use glow sticks thrown away every year.
We spoke with Nyoka Design Labs Co-founder & CEO Paige Whitehead to gain insight into her technology and motivation in building her startup.
What’s wrong with current glow sticks?
Current glow sticks are made of dangerous chemicals: these chemicals cause mutations or cell death if they are exposed to living organisms. To keep the chemicals from being exposed to people, manufacturers use the strongest petrochemical-derived plastics as the glow stick casing—this means these glow sticks will be with us for hundreds of years.
What inspired you to start your company?
There are two parts of the story. In the first part, I went to see bioluminescence in the wild. It’s incredible when I saw it for the first time. It has always captured my imagination ever since. Bioluminescence is the reason why I went into microbiology.
The second part of my inspiration came after my first music festival. I had the best time in my entire life, but when I was walking out of the festival grounds, I saw all this garbage. The contrast was too jarring to comprehend. I saw all these glow sticks on the ground. At that moment, I thought I should really do something with bioluminescence and glow sticks.
I didn’t think that idea would change my life, but it was something that kept coming back into my mind. I started working on it by emailing companies and professors that are experts in the field to get help. Eventually, it turned into a company.
It was a long process but it started from keeping my eye open for things that I would be passionate to work on.
How did you decide which market to focus on first?
Based on our technology development, we can sell right now to the event and festival industry to provide people the most benefits out of using the light wand.
A number of things made the events industry an easy choice. There are tons of people in this industry that really care about sustainability and are looking for interesting new technologies to try. And there are already festivals that have started to ban glow sticks. Plus, it’s also a faster turnaround compared to selling to the government.
It also happens to be super fun; people get excited about festivals! Since I’m young enough to enjoy festivals myself, it’s super fun to work on festivals. And our team also gets excited.
As we make sales and work with current clients, we are also increasing our internal capacity to be able to work with really huge clients. Instead of a pack of 10 or 100, we want to fulfill orders for a pack of 100,000. As we scale up, we are looking at how we can manage expectations and relationships at the early stage. It’s not an easy choice but we need to develop something that follows every stage of our growth.
What’s the most rewarding part of your entrepreneurial journey?
Every now and then, I get an email from either a student or someone who found out about our work. And they tell me that they are going into microbiology or environmental studies because they have been inspired by the work I have done. That fills me with hope. It makes me realize that what we are doing has effects far beyond ourselves. We are showing people that sustainability can go somewhere.
I remember all the companies I looked up to as role models. Now it’s amazing to see we are becoming that for people who are following behind us. It’s amazing to see that the world never stops—it passes on to people who are coming up.
What is your major differentiating factor from your competitors?
We focus on cell-free bioluminescent systems, the “bioluminescence without the fluff.” Our product is based entirely on non-toxic light-generating systems and biodegradable polymers.
Every product decision is made by asking ourselves: “is this a meaningful sustainable leap forwards?” That differentiates us from other bioluminescence companies developing living systems which require life-sustaining infrastructure to maintain light output.
What does the future of your industry look like in 5-10 year?
Single-use plastics will be banned and replaced with biodegradable, regenerative materials. And, of course, all glow sticks will be non-toxic and compostable. It’s just a matter of time until sustainability and circularity become everyone’s top priorities.
Although many governments are supporting industry shifts with decisive bans, it’s still going to be a fight. Here in Canada, the government just designated plastic as a toxic item, but large plastics companies are already getting ready to sue!
The industry has a lot to answer for, but can also make the most impactful changes, from the top of the supply chain all the way through to waste management. Imagine if every single throwaway item was built to be biodegraded, or even healing for our environment! It’s a change worth fighting for.