Founders Interviews: Carlo Fedeli and Thibaut Monfort-Micheo of FlexSea
Our Founders Interview this month is with FlexSea’s Co-Founders, Carlo Fedeli and Thibaut Monfort-Micheo.
FlexSea is a sustainable-packaging company aiming to replace traditional petroleum plastics with innovative natural materials derived from seaweed. Their transparent, resistant materials are degradable in marine, soil and home-composting environments. FlexSea wants to redefine the way people see plastic packaging, believing the packaging of the future to be a packaging that is born in nature, serves its purpose, and returns to nature in a harmless way.
First, can you tell us about your professional background and the path that led you to FlexSea?
C: So, my academic background is in the business side of things. So, I did my bachelor’s at the University of Warwick studying management and then did my master’s at Imperial College here in London in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Professionally, before FlexSea, I have experience in supply chain and marketing, working in a marketing agency and in the hospitality supply chain industry. Then, how did I get into FlexSea? Well, FlexSea is the brainchild of COVID. I started working on FlexSea whilst I was finishing my master’s at Imperial. Essentially, as everything shut down, I went back home to Monaco, where I grew up, although I am originally and by passport Italian, and essentially realized the amount of plastic piling up at home because of halted recycling collections. I thought to myself, “this is too much. We need to do something about it.” Looking into existing solutions I found other bioplastics that really don’t deliver on their promises, either because of their sourcing or the end of life not being truly biodegradable in nature — so, what I learned to be the term home compostable — and also looking at recycling rates being incredibly low due to a mix of infrastructure deficits and post-consumer behavior dependence. Determined, I decided to transform the house into a lab for three and a half or four months — the duration of the lockdown — and worked with seaweed hydrocolloids to develop a rudimentary flexible film, which ultimately is a bit of the backbone of the technology we still have today. I started working with seaweed because the sea has always been my big passion. One of my biggest regrets is in fact studying for a business degree rather than a more scientific one. Chemistry is something I really like, especially marine biology as well, and I knew a bit about the seaweed sphere, I knew about companies working in seaweed to make bioplastics. Nothing was on the market. Most of them were focusing on brown seaweed, which is one of the three main families, and I thought myself “but these other kinds of seaweed have other compounds in them and the sourcing of them might be different, availability of them might be different, so let’s try and focus on red seaweed instead”, and that is how the first FlexSea prototypes came to be. I worked on it for about seven or eight months on my own, until I realized I’m not a scientist, although I really like the science side. That’s when I called up Thibaut, and this is where Thibaut comes into the equation really, which is a really old friend of mine known him for more than 10 years now.
T: So, I’ve known Carlo for, as you said, over 10 years. Carlo was doing rowing with my brother back in Monaco — that’s where we were both raised for the most of our lives — and then I also quit Monaco like Carlo, to go to the UK to study. I did everything at Imperial College: I have a background in Material Science and Engineering, where they focus on biomaterials, although I was going to study more hydrogels for medical applications like bone grafts and tissue replacement. Then in 2016, when I was trying to apply for a PhD, COVID hit and the professor I was supposed to do a PhD with was stuck in at the university where he was supposed to transfer from, and that means that little Thibaut ends up with no PhD. In the COVID period, way too far behind the timeline to apply for a job, I found myself with six months of essentially doing nothing and having no idea what to do. I did apply to a bunch of startups, but never really got successful, so when you ask for a professional background, I have no professional background, I just have an educational background. I did some internships left and right in research and ceramics as well, but overall, Carlo called me about this project in February 2021 and this is where I said, “I have nothing going on at the moment, everything I wanted to do the plans failed because of COVID, let’s try this and see how it goes.” So, the idea was that I would take on the technical aspect while Carlo would pursue the whole business aspect and the fundraising as well, and this is how we divided our plans to then continue.
Why seaweed, and how is your product different from others in the market?
T: That’s a question and a half! Seaweed is a resource that is very underutilized in the sense of the variety of applications that it can provide. In terms of utilization in general, the reason why seaweed is cultivated harvested is because it’s for markets that already exist. Otherwise, people won’t collect it or farm it. So, it is already utilized to a pretty large extent, there can be more, but at the moment there’s no need for more in the current markets like the food industry, the pet industry, the cosmetic industry, and some small applications in pharma, but there we’re talking smaller volumes at a higher purity. However, in terms of diversifying the applications and widening the seaweed industry and its scope, bioplastic is not the only one. We also talk about bio stimulants, other pharmaceutical molecules, different proteins, etc. So, there’s a lot to develop with just seaweed. Now, for bioplastics, it’s a resource that was underutilized and that is very promising in terms of its regenerative potential. It’s a resource that grows in water, so you don’t need any freshwater input, you don’t need pesticides or fertilizers, and there is an enormous potential for growth in terms of the availability of space and the different species that have not been explored. If you compare seaweed to land crops, the amount of advancement and research that has been done is basically nothing. We’re still at the Stone Age of seaweed because what we know about it has been sufficient, but in terms of selections of strains, it is still fairly limited. In terms of breeding or even modification of strains, there is a lot more that can be done, and if we talk about the strains that are cultivated around the world, they can be counted on your fingers, which is very different from the case of land crops, which are between 13,000 to 15,000 different species. So, there’s a lot of potential there. In terms of the properties that are conferred by those hydrocolloids — so polysaccharides, they’re complex sugars — they are very interesting in terms of being barrier to moisture and grease, which is very interesting to create specific packaging applications. With regard to the red seaweed that we’re using, we also see a lot of potential to create transparent materials, which can be very interesting in terms of packaging for windows in cardboard boxes, or sachets, or similar applications in packaging. Then of course, there is the whole degradable aspect, because it’s a natural material that we are not chemically modifying. This is something that can be digested by certain microorganisms or can be dispersed in marine environments or degraded in soil. So, it allows us to have an end of life that is better than other plant-based materials. In terms of the competition, the scope is very broad. You can compare our products to petroleum materials, you can compare to petroleum-derived materials that are compostable or bio-based materials that are not compostable. I’d say that our material has the advantage of being home compostable. So again, degraded natural environments, and it is fully biobased. Now in terms of comparing that to other solutions that are either fully bio-based or compostable, especially in the seaweed industry, it’s kind of hard to discuss that because no one is really on the market at high scale and hence acquiring information and data on the properties of competitors’ products is still impossible. There’s very few exceptions and they’re not always in the field or the markets and we are targeting, so I believe that the main difference that we have is in the understanding of the market, the understanding of the sourcing and trying to target more low-hanging fruits with higher margins so that we penetrate the market faster than our competitors.
What has been the most crucial moment in the history of FlexSea so far?
T: I would say that it was the hire of Mattia, our CSO, because it was the trigger of the expansion away from founder-only. It meant we went from working with flying paper and google docs that we shared just between us, to suddenly needing to make the company. It was not a just project anymore, we’re going to have a team, there needs to be organization. We switched to a more organized database like Notion, which is our bread and butter working tool, and properly defined vertical focuses. The arrival of Mattia also allowed me to free up more time for other things. It was no longer just creating films for flexible packaging; it became how do you use seaweed as a holistic platform? I think that this is where we actually went from two friends with a crazy idea making prototype, to getting investors interested to actually having a proper business. I think that was the most crucial aspect. The upcoming crucial moment is that we’re discussing a big meeting to turn the page between ideation and TRL four or five, to TRL 6 at the end of 2023. We’re planning a big “reading week” to really assess what have we done in these two years and where do we see the most potential to get to market. That will be a big turning point, to assess all of our resources, all of the material that we have developed up to now, and say “okay, this we focus on, this we see later, this we bring to market, this will see in six months if it’s still worth it”, and where do we allocate resources. I think this will be the second biggest crucial point of the company.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you’d do differently?
T: Yes, definitely. We keep saying with Carlo, if we were to rewind time, and we had the same knowledge as today, we would have done as much in one year as we did in two and a half. We would have gone a lot faster because we now understand how the industry works, we understand where it is better to invest time and where not, we know better about hiring people, how to manage people, and I think in terms of equipment we have always tilted towards being very lean and using very little money to do as much as we can. However, sometimes it’s about spending a bit more and being much more efficient with your processes. For example, spending 10,000 pounds on a machine is a bit of a bigger dent in our budget than renting it out, but provides unparalleled advantages in terms of development speed. If you go get your own machine, no one else is there to slow you down and that’s what we could not do at the time, or we could not have perceived. Now that we have the seed funding, if something breaks down or a machine is not working perfectly, it doesn’t matter. We get a new one, it works, and we go faster.
C: I think even more of what we know now would make us go faster. I think the one single thing that I would say we would do earlier, looking back, is as Thibaut said not stop relying on third parties for equipment and instead having them in house.
What can we expect from FlexSea now that you have raised over £3 million in funding?
T: Sales, sales, sales!
C: Hopefully you can expect great things. We’re on the tipping point of leaving the lab for the market. Not that we’re actually physically leaving the lab, but we have materials that we’re significantly happy with and we know can work in certain situations in the market. So, the whole point of the seed round that we just closed is to bring us to market, generate sales, revenues. Where we want to go as an early step are the cosmetic, personal care and fashion industries. I think we are very well placed in terms of material potential as well as production capabilities and discussions with customers to be able to do that in the coming year. So that is the goal. What you can expect from FlexSea is to truly bring seaweed biomaterials to the market and deliver on the promises that we’ve been making so far.