A Hong Kong startup has developed what it says is the world's first iPhone cover made entirely from bioplastics, and hopes to use it as a springboard into a business making 100 percent bio-based consumer products.
Dandelion Research Ltd., launched by a former mobile-phone industry executive, is like others in the bioplastics industry: The firm sees a lot of opportunities in green but acknowledges that it's still unclear if consumers will share the vision and open their wallets.
Dandelion founder Kaya Kaplancali sat down with Plastics News recently in Shenzhen, not far from the injection molding plant contracted to do his manufacturing, and talked about how he believes his five-person product development and marketing firm can be one of the first in the world to build a consumer brand around bioplastics.
Under the brand name Bioserie, the firm launched its iPhone cover, made from 98 percent NatureWorks' Ingeo polylactic acid resin, at a conference attached to the Copenhagen climate summit late last year.
It has since come out with covers for iPods and plans other Apple-related releases this summer under the Bioserie brand. Later it plans to look at branching into other consumer products.
Kaplancali believes that sticking firmly to green can set the company apart in a crowded mobile phone market. That commitment means using entirely bio-based materials and paying three times the usual price for the product's packaging which includes a box made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, soy-based inks and Ingeo PLA transparent film for a display window.
For me this is a business, he said, noting that the company must set the foundation for a viable, long-term brand. We need to do it right if we are going to build an environmentally friendly brand.
He said Dandelion has relied extensively on help from suppliers such as NatureWorks LLC of Minnetonka, Minn.,; PolyOne Corp. of Avon Lake, Ohio, which supplied masterbatches with bio-based colors; colorant supplier Royce Associates in East Rutherford, N.J.; and Dandelion's contracted injection molding company in China.
Most of the challenges I was able to tackle because of the right partners, said Kaplancali. He moved to Hong Kong in 2003, first to run Asia-Pacific operations for a firm making mobile-phone accessories for Nokia and then working as a production director for a firm making similar accessories for Apple, before raising funds to start Dandelion.
From the technical side, there were difficulties at first in sourcing materials and developing the right material formulas, Kaplancali said. Most bio-based plastics applications are in disposable cutlery and packaging, so experience was limited for injection molding the 1-millimeter-thick and relatively detailed cases in the Bioserie line, he said.
The color choices for biopigments are also somewhat limited, he said, and using only bio-based materials means the heat deflection temperature (at which the product can be damaged by being left in a hot car under sunlight for a long time, for example) is about about 130° F.
That's fine for everyday use, he said, but Dandelion wants to raise it, and is working with Chinese and U.S. suppliers on an entirely bio-based formulation that gets the heat-deflection temperature up to about 175° F, he said. Others solve the problem with petrochemical-based additives and resins, Kaplancali said.
We do a lot of trials and errors, he said, who believes Dandelion is one of a handful of companies trying to develop a bioplastic consumer brand.
While there are material and manufacturing challenges, he believes the bigger challenge is in marketing the concept of bioplastics to consumers.
They don't understand what the term biodegradable means and are bombarded with sometimes false or misleading environmental claims, he said. As a result, the Bioserie brand focuses on simple marketing messages around using renewable resources, with language such as made of plants, not petrochemicals, and made from 100 percent annually renewable resources, Kaplancali said.
Those are more important from a marketing point of view.
Dandelion has been careful with some marketing claims, such as biodegradability, an area that government regulators in the U.S. and elsewhere watch closely. The company does not market its products as biodegradable and compostable, even though the materials by themselves meet those standards, he said.
We claim biodegradability and compostability for materials but not the products, he said. Dandelion plans to develop a generic material formulation and get that certified to biopolymer compostability standards EN 13432 and ASTM 6400-99, he said.
The company is just beginning its sales efforts, with online selling and in some specialty shops and Apple resellers in the United States, Europe and Japan. It also is trying to break into larger retailers and Apple stores.
The cases retail for about US$30, which is at the relatively high end of the market for accessories, Kaplancali said.
He has a long background in business to draw from, including working for his family's textile manufacturing firm in Turkey and earning an MBA in the U.S. and a Ph.D. in management in Turkey.
But he concedes that he doesn't have much data on consumer reaction to bioplastic phone accessories. Right now it is still too early to tell. We had a good start but we launched our first product line pretty late in the season. If we get the traction we are seeking, it can be a relatively high-margin business, he said.
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