Consumer Goods, Retail

Two Women
Get Rid of Plastic

Plastic wraps, coatings, and single-use containersthe synthetic content in all these products could be replaced by a bio-based granulate called “Traceless.” It is a fully compostable natural substance with similar properties to plastic.

09/2022

A world without plastic waste—the two founders of Traceless Materials GmbH, Dr. Anne Lamp (CEO, left) and Johanna Baare (COO), are dedicated to achieving this goal. Their innovative bio-based granulate makes plastic products fully compostable.Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible

A grey rolling door rises at the press of a but­ton to reveal an unpre­pos­sess­ing ware­house space. Here in Buch­holz, a small town in north­ern Ger­many, one of the most impor­tant goals of the future—a world with­out plastic—is being active­ly pur­sued. Trace­less Mate­ri­als GmbH, a Ger­man start-up, has devel­oped an inno­v­a­tive solu­tion. Hid­den away inside small sam­ple ves­sels on a lab­o­ra­to­ry table as well as in large black boxes on the right side of the depot: a light orange crys­talline sub­stance that is capa­ble of replac­ing plas­tic. With this sub­stance, the two founders of Trace­less, CEO Dr. Anne Lamp and COO Johan­na Baare, seek to rev­o­lu­tion­ize the plas­tics industry—and to wage war on plas­tic pol­lu­tion. The two women and their team—winners of a 2022 Ger­man Entre­pre­neur Award in the cat­e­go­ry “StartUp”—are keen­ly ded­i­cat­ed to achiev­ing their goal.

Success with an innovative product idea—Lamp and Baare win the 2022 German Entrepreneur Award in the "StartUp" category for their company Traceless. Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible

Sheeting made of grain residues—compost in nine weeks

A truck­load every minute. Or expressed in num­bers, around ten mil­lion tons a year. Accord­ing to the NABU con­ser­va­tion orga­ni­za­tion, that is the rate at which plas­tic waste lands in the world’s oceans. That fig­ure will more than dou­ble by 2040, pre­dicts a study by the Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts non-prof­it and the Sys­temiq sys­tem design­er. One of the main caus­es is the enor­mous increase in sin­gle-use plas­tics. And the con­se­quences are dire. Marine ani­mals and birds are dying. Habi­tats such as coral reefs are suf­fer­ing from a build-up of waste. And bio­di­ver­si­ty is pro­found­ly at risk. To avert the impend­ing demise of the oceans, there is a great need for pioneers—companies like Trace­less.

Found­ed in 2020 in the town of Buch­holz in der Nord­hei­de south of Ham­burg, Trace­less has devel­oped a com­plete­ly new prod­uct: a bio-based gran­u­late that can be fur­ther processed into a sus­tain­able alter­na­tive to plas­tic. The founders have even ensured that the plas­tics indus­try doesn’t have to con­vert its injec­tion mold­ing machin­ery in order to fur­ther process the prod­uct. The gran­u­late is made of residues from pro­cess­ing grain, which are also used in ani­mal feed. Of cru­cial impor­tance here is that the mate­r­i­al is com­plete­ly biodegrad­able under nat­ur­al com­post­ing conditions—within a record time of nine to twelve weeks, the founders promise. As the name “Trace­less” indi­cates, this is a solu­tion that van­ish­es with­out a trace.

The bio-based granulate “Traceless” is produced according to the cradle-to-cradle principle. The basic idea here is that waste products can be kept in closed loops and used subsequently as nutrients.Traceless Materials GmbH

First major client: the Otto Group

The idea for Trace­less came from Ham­burg native Dr. Anne Lamp, born in 1991, around three years ago when she was work­ing on her PhD in process engi­neer­ing at the Ham­burg Uni­ver­si­ty of Tech­nol­o­gy. Along­side her doc­tor­al research, she turned her atten­tion to anoth­er process: name­ly, how a mate­r­i­al with sim­i­lar prop­er­ties to plas­tic could be pro­duced from agri­cul­tur­al indus­try byprod­ucts. Ini­tial sam­ples were gen­er­at­ed, and the first large com­pa­ny became inter­est­ed. This was the fam­i­ly-run Otto Group, a long-stand­ing inter­na­tion­al e‑commerce busi­ness. “Otto was excit­ed right away, even though it took some imag­i­na­tion to envi­sion real pack­ag­ing mate­ri­als from those early sam­ples,” says Lamp. “But that was when I start­ed to real­ize this could real­ly attract people’s atten­tion.”

Lamp and Baare got to know each other at the “ActOnPlastic” challenge from the Project Together Berlin incubator. Together the two founders refined their idea into a real business model—and launched Traceless in September 2020.Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible

While still a doc­tor­al can­di­date, she prompt­ly entered her idea and first project sam­ples in the “ActOn­Plas­tic” chal­lenge from Project Togeth­er, a Berlin-based incu­ba­tor. There she met her co-founder Johan­na Baare. “The chal­lenge was to bring togeth­er 100 ideas to solve the glob­al plas­tic prob­lem,” says Lamp. “Mine was one of them. Every­one with an idea was assigned a men­tor from busi­ness, and I was matched with Johan­na.” The two women held vir­tu­al meet­ings for half a year on Zoom, refin­ing the idea into an actu­al busi­ness model. Two and a half years later, when Lamp took the plunge to launch a busi­ness, she was clear about one thing: “I can’t do this alone, I need Johan­na at my side.” While Lamp brings the tech­ni­cal exper­tise, Baare is respon­si­ble for busi­ness mat­ters. “What makes us such a strong founder team is that we com­ple­ment each other so well in our respec­tive areas of exper­tise,” says Baare, who was born in 1988 and earned degrees in psy­chol­o­gy and busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion.

“We want Traceless to replace as many plastic products as possible, especially those that could end up in the environment or for which we don’t have the right recycling techniques,” says Dr. Anne Lamp, CEO of Traceless Materials GmbH.Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible

What truly unites the two young entre­pre­neurs is the goal on which they res­olute­ly base all their busi­ness deci­sions. “Our mis­sion is for our prod­uct to make a real impact,” says Lamp. “We want Trace­less to replace as many plas­tic prod­ucts as pos­si­ble, espe­cial­ly those that could end up in the envi­ron­ment or for which we don’t have the right recy­cling tech­niques.” Trace­less has a wide range of poten­tial appli­ca­tions. The gran­u­late can be used to make wraps and coat­ings as well as alter­na­tives to hard plas­tics. Pack­ag­ing and sin­gle-use prod­ucts are high on the agen­da as well. Prod­ucts like straws, ice cream spoons, fruit and veg­etable con­tain­ers, and e‑commerce pack­ag­ing mate­ri­als could all be replaced by Trace­less in the future. In order to clear­ly dis­tin­guish these end prod­ucts from their con­ven­tion­al plas­tic coun­ter­parts, each will be stamped with the Trace­less logo.

The founders (right) and two of their colleagues from R&D, Gabriela Silva and Alessandro Cataldo (left), in the lab at the company’s headquarters in Buchholz. The team is working on quality assurance for material samples. Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible
Traceless’s bio-based granulate is made of byproducts from grain processing—natural materials also used in animal feed.Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible
A preliminary stage in the Traceless production process. The finished bio-based granulate can be used to make replacements for wraps, coatings, and packaging products as well as hard plastics.Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible
The granulate is currently being produced in small volumes at the pilot plant in Buchholz. The founder team is working on expansion, with a larger production plant scheduled to start up in 2024. Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible

Traceless—Holistically Sustainable

In terms of sustainability, Traceless is a big step ahead of bioplastics, as shown by this compostability test of its wraps (left, thickness: 0.2 and 1.6 mm) and a conventional biowaste bag (right, thickness: 0.03 mm).Traceless Materials GmbH
The founders of Traceless determined right from the start that their material should be sustainable overall without any undesirable side effects. It should not only solve the plastic pollution problem but also refrain from creating new problems such as the need for greater use of land or higher levels of energy. In short, Traceless’s overall footprint on the planet should be positive. According to Dr. Anne Lamp and Johanna Baare, they therefore considered all their product’s environmental impact indicators and developed it in accordance with the cradle-to-cradle principle, which is based on the idea that waste products are nutrients. It means that all materials should be part of ongoing circular systems and change into nutrients after their intended use. The key to Traceless’s outstanding compostability lies in its natural ingredients. “What makes our solution so special is that we don’t produce any synthetic polymer chains like those in the chemical industry’s conventional plastics or in bioplastics,” says Baare. “We use polymers that already exist in nature. That also means they’re biodegradable—in just a few weeks.” Traceless is therefore suitable for products that all too often end up in nature as waste. However, its high compostability means it is less resistant to acids and weather conditions. It also cannot hold up against liquids for long periods of time, which would be required for products such as orange juice bottles. As Lamp explains, “In that case, it still makes sense to use conventional plastics—assuming there’s a closed technical loop in which the materials are completely recycled. But for all other applications where the loops can’t be closed, we need biological cycles and materials like Traceless.” Traceless has another sustainability-related advantage. Because the bio-based granulate is made from the byproducts of annual plants, it needs no further recycling or reuse in connection with its life-cycle assessment. This contrasts favorably with materials such as wood or paper, when one considers that the trees from which they originated need seven years to grow again.
“What makes our solution so special is that we don’t produce any synthetic polymer chains. We use polymers that already exist in nature, which means they’re also biodegradable in nature,” says Johanna Baare, COO of Traceless Materials GmbH.Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible

From pilot phase to takeoff

The two founders complement each other perfectly. Lamp, who has a doctorate in process engineering, brings the technical expertise. And Baare, with degrees in psychology and business administration, oversees the business side.Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible
Founders Lamp and Baare at a team meeting with Tobias Scholz (head of engineering, left) and Pascal Volkmer (project engineer, right). Porsche Consulting/Andreas Laible

In con­junc­tion with sev­er­al part­ners, includ­ing the Otto Group and Lufthansa AG, a 22-mem­ber team is work­ing inten­sive­ly on the first pilot prod­ucts. Plans call for Otto to already start test­ing Trace­less ship­ping mate­ri­als in 2022. And Lufthansa, Germany’s largest air­lines, is ready to use the first pro­to­types for its onboard pack­ag­ing. Fur­ther steps are need­ed, how­ev­er, before pro­duc­tion can begin on an indus­tri­al scale. The gran­u­late is cur­rent­ly being made in small batch sizes at the first pilot plant in Buch­holz. “Com­pared to the vol­umes we used to make at the lab, that’s already quite a lot for us,” says Baare. “But it’s essen­tial­ly noth­ing for the plas­tics indus­try so we real­ly have to scale it up. That’s our great­est chal­lenge, but it’s also a major incen­tive to ramp up our mate­r­i­al pro­duc­tion as fast as pos­si­ble because there’s clear­ly a high level of demand.” The team is prepar­ing to start up a larg­er plant in 2024, in order to pro­duce on a mass scale and be capa­ble of replac­ing entire prod­uct lines with nat­ur­al mate­ri­als in the near future.

German Entrepreneur Award (Deutscher Gründerpreis)—The Final Round

Founded in 2002, the German Entrepreneur Award honor individuals who have the courage to turn their visions into business plans—and their ideas into companies. In addition to Traceless Materials GmbH, there are five other nominees in the StartUp (“start-up”) and Aufsteiger (“rising star”) categories for the final round and awards ceremony on September 13 in Berlin.
WINNER (Aufsteiger)Counterfeit Catchers Transparency, predictability, and trust are essential qualities along the entire supply chain. The B2B software from Mannheim-based Osapiens Services GmbH protects consumers and globally active companies from fake products, piracy, and smuggling. Using special codes, scanners, and an innovative technology platform, investigators can seamlessly track such things as product journeys from source to recycling. NOMINEE (Aufsteiger)Quicker Questionnaires Hamburg-based Appinio GmbH is transforming the survey sector. Instead of days or weeks, it now takes only a few minutes on average to conduct a digital survey “out in the field,” i.e., with respondents, and present the results. Using completely new methods, social media mechanisms, and a generous helping of entertainment, Appinio compiles data faster and better—because its system apparently also encourages people to respond with greater candor. NOMINEE (Aufsteiger)Swifter Sand and Stone Supplies Faster, more digitized, and more transparent—Schüttflix GmbH from Gütersloh has developed an app for transporting and disposing of bulk goods, which is solving problems and modernizing the construction industry. Gravel, crushed stone, and sand can now be ordered quickly and easily via a cellphone app. Delivery locations can be marked on a virtual map and delivery status tracked down to the minute. The company also helps construction material suppliers and transport companies work transregionally and avoid empty runs, and thereby also improve their carbon footprints. NOMINEE (StartUp)Power from PrintersAdditive Drives GmbH from Dresden has succeeded in using 3D printing to produce the conductive copper and aluminum components for electric motors. Whereas conventional techniques can only process copper in wire form, for example, additive production enables completely new and more efficient geometries, and the resulting motors are up to 45 percent more powerful. The company’s clients include Ford (USA) and Toyota (Japan) in addition to all the major German carmakers. NOMINEE (StartUp)Answers with AI Artificial intelligence (AI) is entering a new dimension. Aleph Alpha GmbH from Heidelberg has developed an AI model that grasps logical relations in both texts and images. It not only recognizes objects but also apprehends contexts and causes, and responds in nearly creative ways. Its answers are not only precise, rapid, and transparent, but also aligned linguistically to human understanding. AI can now be used to answer questions hidden in huge and complex volumes of data.
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