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An Innovative Engineering Twist for Sustainability

Posted:
18 October, 2021

Dr. Dinaz Zenobia Stutterheim is a woman of few words, but deep passions.

Through a series of serendipitous encounters, she went from being fully cognizant of sustainability issues to finally buckling down to say, “Talking about it is one thing, but then somebody has to solve this problem. And if I have the ability to do it, why not.”

It was then when Dinaz joined Prakruti Kodali, a fellow cohort member, to go all-in to tackle the issue of plastic waste on the environment at Entrepreneur First, and pFIBRE was formed.

They were on a mission to solve a very difficult problem; creating unique plastic alternatives that can not only reduce plastic waste, but also lower the greenhouse gas emissions from the standard plastic production process. 

We spoke to Dinaz about how she connected the dots and stepped into entrepreneurship; and her feat of building a home lab during a pandemic while pregnant. 

Growing awareness on sustainability and the environment

Whilst pursuing her P.h.D. in Australia, Dinaz was already very much sold on the importance of sustainability amid the increasing impact from a compromised natural environment – it was undeniably the big issue among the academic circle. 

Coincidentally, her thesis then was all about understanding the world of materials to engineer and craft creative solutions to counter the effects of environmental degradation to extend the F/A-18 combat aircraft’s lifespan.

More than just these touchpoints, as an avid scuba diver, she also saw firsthand how plastic pollution ruins the absolutely stunning nature underwater. 

“When I used to dive a lot, it was really frustrating to see the Coca-Cola cans and chips floating all around,” recalls Dinaz, “ All I wanted to do was to enjoy my dive and appreciate the wonders and beauty of the underwater environment.”

“It was quite a jarring sight that sticks, away from the ‘detached experience’ most would get just seeing the pollution from their digital screens.”

It quickly became one of the more common discussions she had with her diving partner husband. 

Little did she know that these seemingly unrelated simultaneous experiences would one day come one full circle and she would be the one fixing up an innovative solution for the plastic pollution problem that she so abhors.

A propelling nudge to entrepreneurship

After leaving her Assistant Professor role in Beijing to move to Singapore with her husband, she found herself itching for a change.

She was determined to do more purposeful work that would give her plenty of independence and flexibility.

“While that definitely comes with an academic position, it still comes with certain strings attached, and you are subjected to those less meaningful mandates to whoever you are working under,” explains Dinaz.

“I am certainly not the person suited for the typical nine to five job.”

It was during that time when she first heard about Entrepreneur First (EF) but was initially quite skeptical.

“Diving into entrepreneurship is not the easiest thing. It’s not a decision you can just make easily,” notes Dinaz.

“I grew up in a very traditional Asian environment and was taught stability is everything and of paramount value – and here, entrepreneurship is anything but stable.

My husband, however, had a very different perspective. He was all for it, encouraging and eventually convincing me to go out there to do this.”

Coming into EF, she was clear and adamant on a few things, most importantly the type of co-founder and business partner that she was looking for. 

“I know myself well, I know what my strengths are, I wanted someone to balance out my weaknesses, someone who is more extroverted, who is charismatic, and unafraid to go out to speak to people.

And it was this same stubborn belief that caught Prakruti’s attention. She immediately sought me out there and then, insisting we bonded over a meal.

During lunch, we chatted about everything and anything but not the actual problem we both wanted to work on. Somehow, there was this camaraderie between us, we connected on a personal level, and that laid the foundation for the relationship we share till today.

Seeing the same passion and zeal to go 100% once she commits to something sealed the deal for me, ” shares Dinaz.

Prakruti with Dinaz
Prakruti with Dinaz

And that’s essentially how Dinaz and Prakruti went into full-scale action mode to create plant-based and fully biodegradable packaging, a reliable plastic alternative, to make the world a better place for generations to come. 

Hustling through challenges and adversities for the first MVP

A few weeks into EF, Singapore went into a pandemic-induced lockdown, and there was simply nothing to do, nowhere to go, but to stay at home.

Thankfully, for them, all things on the customer development front were going well – all interested customers were from all over the world, and communications had been virtual from the beginning.

However, they had a bigger issue on hand. 

“We knew I had to deliver on our prototype to prove that our idea works and that it’s not just a figment of our imagination.

The lockdown had just thrown us a curveball and my original plan of experimenting and building our prototype in the lab just went out of the window. 

There was definitely that convenient option of saying we are in lockdown, what can we do, and concede to the unforeseen situation. 

But, that’s just not me. I haven’t exhausted all my resources yet, and I’m sure I will find a way,” tells Dinaz. 

Having made her own humidifier during her research days when the lab didn’t have one, Dinaz knew a thing or two about improvising with creativity.

And so, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

Dinaz turned her home kitchen into a self-made mini-lab and started figuring her way out through plenty of trial and error.

“I knew vaguely what the process would be as it’s a common process in engineering. However, to be doing this at home, in my kitchen, I obviously haven’t done it before, it’s a matter of trying,” recalls Dinaz.

To quickly formulate the optimal mix fast, she had to find the most efficient way of making the film which involves blending the mixture of plant-based ingredients and also drying the film. 

She initially tried to use the blenders she had at home but these efforts came to no avail. She ended up purchasing mechanical mixers for better results. 

And then came the experiment of drying the films – she even bought dehumidifiers to test it out before coming to the conclusion that natural sunlight can simply do the trick. 

After exploring a multitude of methods, she finally had her prototype ready.

Home-made clear film
Home-made clear film

Barely three months into her journey at EF, she presented her homemade film prototype that’s comprised of plant-based materials only. It disintegrated in seawater. Their concept was validated and she proved that she was capable of manufacturing a plant-based plastic alternative that is safe and environmentally friendly. 

Their idea made it through the EF team’s review and enabled them to unlock the next stage of implementation. 

They continue to iterate constantly on their working product to design fully biodegradable and sustainable packaging as they charge ahead towards their bigger dream. 

“From day one, we approached this problem holistically. It is more than just devising plastic alternatives using ethically sourced and biodegradable ingredients.

We have to keep the whole supply chain affordable to drive a radical change -this means we need to ensure that existing machinery for plastic films can be re-used to make our bio-based films.

In the long run, this will reduce marine pollution and damage to all organisms and the economic structures worldwide,” concludes Dinaz, “And we have only just begun.”  

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