Origin Story Interview W/ Thibaut Monfort-Micheo, FlexSea

Origin Story Interview W/ Thibaut Monfort-Micheo, FlexSea

Brighter Future

 / 

Feb 7, 2024

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #SustainablePackaging #SeaweedPlastic #Biodegradable #EcoFriendly #CircularEconomy #PlasticAlternatives #EnvironmentalImpact

Brighter Future

We were joined by Thibaut Monfort-Micheo, the co-founder and CTO of FlexSea— or as he calls himself, the CTOcean. FlexSea makes biodegradable and food-safe plastic from seaweed.

Thank you so much for talking with us, Thibaut. Would you please tell me a little bit about your business?

FlexSea is a UK-based startup that makes packaging from seaweed. Our solutions are fully compostable, entirely bio-based, and inspired by nature. They originate from the ocean and return to the ocean.

What is the overall goal that you're trying to achieve with your seaweed plastic? What is the primary goal of your seaweed plastic initiative?

We started because my co-founder had the idea, and I joined in due to a shared passion. We realised that the existing solutions for addressing the plastic issue were incomplete. There were gaps in sourcing, which was not entirely renewable, and in the end-of-life stage, which was not completely eco-friendly, even when composting was considered.

Our aim is to provide a truly renewable and naturally degradable alternative. This should result in a significantly reduced environmental impact, and ideally, a positive impact on ecosystems and wildlife in general. To achieve this, substantial volumes are necessary and so prioritising impact is essential. This involves replacing packaging on a large scale where it can have a significant effect.

How did you come to know your co-founder, and how did he persuade you to join the team?

It all began some time ago. Carlo happened to be an old friend of my brother. They used to row together in Monaco. We were both raised in Monaco, where our passion for sustainability and the ocean took root. Growing up, we witnessed plastic pollution on the beaches from a young age, with plastic bottles, bags, and cigarette butts scattered across the sand, leaving a lasting impact on us.

After our time in Monaco, both of us pursued our studies in the UK. We reconnected during our fourth year when he was studying business management, and I was studying materials engineering at Imperial College. He came up with the idea during the lockdown and got in touch with me. Convincing me was relatively straightforward, in a way. He reached out to me on the last Sunday of February 2021. I'd describe it more as a bromance. He called me with this wild idea: creating plastics from seaweed. I was on the phone, wondering, 'What are you talking about?' He explained the project and mentioned that he already had some prototypes, and it aligned perfectly with my aspirations.

It was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was hard to find a job at the time, so this felt like a “now or never” situation. Should we try something unconventional and go rogue? If it worked, great. If not, at least we would have tried. Alternatively, should I keep applying for jobs and risk not finding one? We decided to take that risk.

You're both from Monaco and now have your company in the UK. How did that happen?

It came from our studies. Our studies led us to the UK, where we established our ecosystem. We've both been here for seven years. London is a financially active and investment hub with a vibrant green ecosystem.

We also had many networking connections with universities, which we leveraged. While we're still active in Monaco, London is where we developed our ecosystem, with our early lab and first partners. That's why we chose to stay here.

Where did the name come from, and who came up with it?

Carlo came up with the name. Initially, we considered other names when incorporating the company, including “Flexi.” But the domain for Flexi was taken, so we settled on “FlexSea.” “Flex” signifies flexibility, and 'sea' represents anything related to the ocean, primarily seaweed, reflecting our product: flexible packaging made with seaweed.

Tell us more about your roots and your career steps.

Our backgrounds are similar. We both grew up with a strong connection to nature and had the privilege of escaping the city to immerse ourselves in the countryside. This connection to nature played a significant role in our upbringing and shaped our values.

Spending time in nature, at campsites, and by the ocean was a fundamental part of our childhood. This upbringing played a role in our decision to start FlexSea.

My mother worked in sustainability and organised a sustainability fair in Monaco called Monacology. I helped at the booth focused on reusing and recycling waste every summer. This fair had a partnership with the exotic garden of Monaco, where we would plant small cacti in pots made from waste plastics collected from the ocean. I once gave one of these pots to the Prince of Monaco, but the glue wasn't dry, and his hands got stuck. It was a memorable moment, and my mom wasn't proud of it.

This ecosystem influenced our decision to start FlexSea and gave us a personal connection to sustainability. It's not just about technical knowledge; it's about a deep, personal commitment to the cause. The connection I share with Carlo and my mother's influence made it clear that this was the path we needed to follow.

I also feel like I'm carrying on my late mother's legacy and her commitment to sustainable education.

How was your journey into entrepreneurship and business ownership or co-founding? Was it a childhood dream or a gradual development?

That aspect was more Carlo's forte. I'm forever thankful to Carlo for bringing me on this adventure because I wouldn't have ventured into it on my own. I lacked the necessary skills and technical knowledge, and I had many concerns on the legal side. He reassured me by handling what I considered the more mundane aspects, such as accounting, legal work, and paperwork.

Now, I'm more of an entrepreneur than just a scientist following my friend who handles the less exciting aspects of entrepreneurship. There was a transition, but I've always been comfortable leading projects or teams, even in university group projects where I focused on task design and work package management. I was always at ease communicating with teams. Many individuals might excel in their tasks but lack the leadership skills to lead a team.

Again, I think I'm naturally comfortable with it, but Carlo gave me a significant boost. He has a complementary background and character compared to mine. He's the optimist, and I'm the realist. I'm always mindful of the risks and challenges in the company, while he boosts team morale and contributes creative ideas. We complement each other well.

What aspect of your work do you find most fulfilling?

At the beginning, I would have said that doing something I love is the most fulfilling. It's still something I love doing, but as an entrepreneur, leader, manager, or just a people person, you discover new elements that are even more exhilarating and fulfilling. What makes me proudest is that we have team members who earn a living from this. When you post a job ad, you're essentially asking for help and their trust, especially in a startup's early stages. Knowing that there's a team that enjoys the project as much as we do, and they don't have to worry about their finances, is just great.

Who is FlexSea's target audience?

FlexSea's target audience is broad, encompassing everyone from end-users like you and me to those who traditionally source their packaging from various suppliers. Packaging is a universally relevant product. That said, it gets more complex the further you get into the supply chain. Upstream, we work with seaweed farmers, refineries, and processors crucial to bioplastics development. We also collaborate with research centres and universities to access specialised machinery and instruments for material development. Downstream, we partner with packagers and plastic transformers who convert our formulations into finished or semi-finished products. For example, in the case of flexible packaging, some individuals convert it into rolls, while others manufacture sachets, print on them, seal them, and fill them with contents before distributing them to retailers. Retailers then sell the products to consumers like you and me.

Further down the line, waste management comes into play, ensuring proper waste disposal. Even if waste ends up in the wrong places, our products are designed to compost in natural environments, ultimately returning to nature. Our entire supply chain operates with a holistic approach.

From a business perspective, we must maintain a balance between incoming and outgoing resources. “Cash in” includes investments and contracts with buyers. “Material in” relates to our supply chain, as previously mentioned. “Cash out” is generated through sales to retailers, plastic transformers, and other partners, while “material out” aligns with the transformation and distribution of materials. This comprehensive approach offers a more in-depth understanding of our ecosystem.

Have you ever had to pivot or make a significant change from your initial business strategy?

No, there hasn't been any pivot, but we have begun developing new verticals. From an entrepreneurial perspective, having more opportunities is advantageous. We're now working with a material that can be extruded, allowing for injection moulding of solid parts, like rigid plastics. This material has broader applications than we initially imagined. So, more opportunities are better.

Additionally, we're currently developing a branch focused on waste valorisation and biotechnology, which represents the third primary vertical for FlexSea.

From an investor's point of view, you want to make sure that the company focuses on one or two key niches or low-hanging fruits to penetrate the market effectively. Once the business is running— cash in, cash out, cash in, cash out— you can explore other verticals.

Our approach is quite agile. We maintain a strong focus on business and market entry, but we also leverage grants and academic collaborations to run parallel projects. This way, we can conduct feasibility studies alongside our main product development, allowing us to dedicate more time to bringing our primary product to market, developing our business, and gaining commercial traction. It's been the key to our survival because startups are always on the edge, which adds excitement to the project. We've worked hard to maintain a lean approach.

What have been the biggest challenges you've encountered so far with FlexSea?

Of course, there's the issue of fundraising. You are operating in an extremely competitive environment, especially within the plastics and packaging industry. There's a multitude of alternatives to traditional plastic packaging being developed, such as bioplastics, mycelium-based materials, cardboard-based materials, and various natural fibres. Hemp, flax, and kenaf fibres, for example, have gained significant popularity. So, you are navigating a highly saturated market.

The challenge here is to stand out. You might think that producing plastic from seaweed is unique enough, given that it doesn't require pesticides, fertiliser, or freshwater. However, the reality is that several other companies are doing the same. This leads to a different dynamic, not just asking "Why are we different?" but "Why are we better?" This is a complex question to address because to the average consumer, producing plastics from seaweed may seem similar across different companies. They may not consider the specifics of the seaweed used, the processing methods, water usage, carbon emissions, energy consumption, material performance, target markets, and other differentiating factors. This is the challenge we face when communicating our uniqueness, especially when competing against companies that have been in the industry for a decade and have raised substantial funds. We believe that with just five team members and a modest budget, we have achieved more than some of our larger competitors. We are currently closing a funding round of 2 million pounds in the coming weeks.

However, conveying these distinctions effectively requires strong fundraising skills, which I'm still working on. The differentiator is quite challenging to present in a simple way. Nevertheless, we have made progress in articulating our unique selling points, such as valorizing bio-waste, using more sustainable resources, reducing water and material usage, ensuring material transparency, offering versatility in applications, gaining traction, and more. These factors collectively set us apart.

How do you plan to communicate your message beyond an initial scroll on your website?

It's crucial not to convey that it's all about presentation without substance. It's not just about who has the best marketing. While marketing plays a role, it's essential to avoid making it sound as if it's all about storytelling with nothing substantial behind it. You need to be convincing in what you say and back your claims.

We collaborated with exceptionally talented professionals on our website, but there's still room for improvement. People's reluctance to read about the competitive landscape of plastic packaging, especially the average consumer's lack of awareness about it, is a challenge. Simply stating that we make plastics from seaweed may suffice.

This raises an important question: who is your target audience? Knowing your audience is crucial. I wouldn't address someone who knows nothing about plastic packaging or biomaterials the same way I'd approach someone aware of plastic alternatives. When speaking to a potential customer, I'd assume they have some knowledge and go directly to what sets us apart. It's about tailoring your message to your audience and knowing your craft.

What has been your greatest “Aha!” moment with FlexSea?

I was reading through it when we discussed those things, and I kind of left it to give a raw reaction. I guess the first fundraising round was significant. It shows the accomplishment of a year's worth of work, and it's going to be the same for this current fundraising round. I think these were common “Aha!” moments. Every time the team grows in size and achieves something rewarded by an investment, which is honestly the highest kind of reward you can get at the early stage, is a cause for celebration. These moments will go hand in hand with potential commercial agreements. Any reward, of any type, is an “Aha!” moment.

Now, if I have to talk about my personal “Aha!” moment, I would say it was when we realised the potential to extrude the material. We transitioned from a technology where the product could be processed on standard machinery but required non-standard machinery to something that could be done entirely on standard machinery. In terms of upscaling and application in the industry, that's a game-changer. Witnessing how quickly we broke through that barrier, from the moment we first looked into it to the first time we saw Flexi material coming out of the extruder, or when we ran it at high speeds after just three days of machinery setup, with the material running at 20 kilograms an hour, was quite astounding. Especially considering this was at a lab scale, which is already a significant achievement. It didn't take that much work. It was a true “Aha!” moment, as in, “Wow, this is huge.”

But at the same time, it makes you realise many other obstacles and challenges lie ahead, some of which I'm aware of, and some that I don't even know about. It's a challenging but exciting journey. It's like finishing the first stage of a game, only to discover that there are a thousand more levels ahead. You realise that this is just the beginning. That was the most exhilarating feeling, I would say.

Is this “Aha!” moment your unique selling point? Is it your main differentiator from your competitors or not?

I would say that we were the fastest to reach that stage, considering when we started the company and when we began to look into this. We were probably among the first two or three companies to work with extrusion using purely seaweed material. I'm not referring to blends with petroleum-based materials or other bioplastics; I'm specifically talking about purely seaweed-based materials. I'm quite confident that within the ecosystem, we were among the top two or three.

I knew of some people who started experimenting, but I never heard of anyone going as far as we did. Of course, there's a lot of confidentiality in the industry, and many companies don't disclose their activities. It's possible that other companies have done this before us, or they're simply not talking about it. So I'm always careful about what I say.

But I trust our teams, our ecosystem, the people we work with, the third parties, and the research centres. I know we're all putting in 200% of our efforts and expertise. I'm confident that we will have a better and more cost-effective product. Even if we weren't the first to do it, if we do it better and more affordably than anyone else, we'll come out on top. That's the key differentiator, the Holy Grail for everyone in the market. Plastics are a commodity; high margins aren't typical, so it might not sound appealing to investors. However, the focus is on scaling a material that can be commercially accepted at a certain price point and performance level. That's the ultimate goal, and it's a race everyone is in.

What inspires you the most?

Carlo is my primary inspiration, and was particularly so during the project's ideation phase. I don't have an entrepreneur role model like Steve Jobs, although we had a scrappy beginning when we started the lab in my living room and later in Carlo's kitchen. My dad's influence slowly cultivated the idea of being my own boss, and he always told me, "One day, you won't want to be an employee; you'll want to be your own boss. Be in control of what you do and ensure it's something you love. From there on, it won't be a job; it will be your hobby." I only truly grasped this much later in life. Parents often speak the truth, but their words may not have the same impact until you discover it for yourself. You have that “Aha!” moment when it all clicks, and you break through a metaphorical glass wall.

I'm expressing that feeling right now, where you're told many generic things and typical parental advice, but they don't resonate until you experience it yourself. Then, you find yourself echoing the same advice you once dismissed. That's truly inspiring because it shows personal growth. My greatest inspiration is understanding that I'm progressing in life, even if some things sound cliché and I hear them every day. I know that one day, it will click for me too, and I'll be the one saying those seemingly simple words. Only then will I fully appreciate the depth and weight behind them. It's impossible to understand the significance people carry in their words until you've lived it yourself.

How do you deal with difficult situations and stay grounded?

When I realise there's a problem, I take a deep breath and internally assess if it's a genuine issue or if I'm overthinking it. If I believe there is a real problem, I discuss it with Carlo and Mattia. We dissect it and, if it's crucial, we're willing to dedicate an entire day to solving it. We know that if we don't address it promptly, it will just fester. So the key is to resolve it now.

It's crucial to tackle issues promptly but not react too hastily. A quick reaction might not allow for thorough consideration and could lead to a poor response. The goal is to address the problem swiftly but with careful thought. That's the main approach.

I find it quite remarkable that even in today's world, male entrepreneurs can openly share that they cry when facing difficulties. They acknowledge that it's essential to release their emotions before they can think rationally again.

Some individuals share their emotions genuinely, while others do it to seek attention, wanting to prove they're open and human. I want to mention Samuel Roy from the “Connected” platform, who discusses this topic rationally. He shares his experiences as a successful entrepreneur who has faced many challenges. But I believe that one's ability to do so depends on their individual character. Not everyone can do it, at least not at every stage of their life. Personally, I consider myself somewhat fortunate in a peculiar way, as life has presented me with losses in family and friends and other profound experiences that, although painful at the time, have helped me gain perspective. If something goes wrong tomorrow, such as breaking my hands or a lab fire, it would be inconvenient, but ultimately, it's just material. This perspective comes from my background as a materials engineer. Many things are more significant than momentary setbacks, as long as there's enough time to resolve the issue. The issue isn't insurmountable; it's a barrier that can be broken, circumvented, or climbed. It will require time, effort, and possibly money and sacrifice, but it's still just a barrier. Unless it's genuinely impenetrable, which is rare, there's no point wasting energy on it. There's no sense in chipping away at a wall that can't be breached; it's unproductive. Though it might make you tougher, in the end, you've merely wasted your time. In some situations, it is what it is. This seemingly simple saying actually holds a lot of truth. Accepting that fact requires a great deal of maturity, and I'm not entirely there yet. I say “It is what it is,” and I try to act accordingly in front of my team and myself to cope with it. But there's still a part of me that wants to complain and cry about it, just banging at an unbreakable wall because I feel like it. That's fine; I'll improve over time.

Opening up about mental health has become a significant trend in recent years. People are acknowledging their emotions and embracing therapy and medication when needed. I've seen some statistics indicating a 60% increase in antidepressant use among 18 to 24-year-olds over the past four years, which is astonishing. At an age when you have abundant energy, time, and the promise of financial stability, this trend seems counterintuitive. It's crucial to strike a balance between accepting that mental health is a legitimate concern and not making it too commonplace. Normalising it to the point where taking antidepressants or seeking psychiatric help becomes the default is not advisable. The norm should be striving for mental well-being. When you need help, it's essential to seek it, but it's equally vital to be cautious about overindulging, as it can become an escape. We should encourage ourselves to think positively and work towards feeling better and stronger. Occasionally, we must face difficult challenges, and it's not pleasant, but overcoming them makes us stronger.

Making the distinction between when to seek help and when to tough it out is the real challenge. I'm grateful that we're discussing this today. In previous podcasts and standard interviews, I've talked about topics like flexibility, materials, and seaweed. While those topics are relevant to our field, discussing these mental and emotional aspects is equally important in an entrepreneur's life. I have my methods for coping, but it's crucial to recognize that not everyone will respond the same way to challenges. What matters most is having a small support group that will stand by you during tough times. That's what truly counts.

What was the most significant compromise or sacrifice you had to make to reach your current position?

Personally, my social life took a hit. I was a bit of a school nerd and a gamer, so I had a less active social life. While I still try to see my friends, the group has become smaller. I don't see this as a bad thing; I'm just more selective about the people I spend time with. As an entrepreneur working 10 to 12 hours a day, including weekends, and often going to the lab early, I leave the lab anywhere between 8:30 and 11 p.m. on some nights. I go home, cook quickly, and head to bed. The little time I have has become more valuable, so I allocate it to the right people, which has become my way of having a life outside of FlexSea. I'm not concerned about everything else around FlexSea because I'm content with working 12 hours a day. Some might view it as a sacrifice, but I don't.

Another sacrifice I'd like to mention is a trade-off. Within the company, there's a trade-off between performance and price. It's a different topic from what I just discussed, but it's an essential one. As a company, you must balance the technical side, especially from an engineering perspective where I strive to create a product that performs exceptionally well. However, pursuing perfection can lead to development delays and hinder market entry. You might end up with a product that's perfect in the lab but can't be scaled up, or even if it can, it's prohibitively expensive, and there might be little market demand. Finding the right balance between product development and business success, rather than solely focusing on technical excellence, is crucial.

Now, let me share how I envision the future. We aim to produce approximately 10 tons of material within the first year, which is quite ambitious compared to our competitors. However, we embrace this ambitious goal, and I have every confidence in our team's ability to achieve it. Transitioning from the lab to the market is our immediate future for FlexSea.

Looking further ahead, we aspire to take control of the upstream processes, specifically the processing of seaweed. In the world of materials, having control over the raw material is crucial. The seaweed sector will be FlexSea's primary focus, and within the broader context of the algae industry, sourcing will be a critical aspect to monitor. Investors are becoming increasingly interested in investing in seaweed farms, even though, initially, it may not appear as lucrative as end applications with higher added value. Nonetheless, investment funds are including companies working on end products with seaweed in their portfolios, which has spurred interest in seaweed farming. In an ideal scenario, this investment might have occurred the other way around, but financial incentives tend to dictate the direction of investment. Consequently, we are now witnessing a significant increase in investment in seaweed processing, seaweed farming, strain selection to produce more resilient algae and propagules, and the cultivation of genetically superior plants for higher efficiency, all while maintaining sustainability. That's the future I see.

I believe seaweed will secure a strong position in the market, although it won't be the sole solution. Seaweed-based packaging will serve specific applications, but there are areas where it won't be suitable. Collaboration with other solutions for different market segments is vital to create a sustainable ecosystem. It's essential to ensure that these solutions coexist harmoniously, preventing counterproductive competition, although healthy competition is beneficial. We should avoid the notion of a 'silver bullet' that will replace all forms of plastic. Even today, when discussing plastics, we refer to various types like polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene, and PVC. The petroleum-based plastic industry does not have a single material dominating the market. So it's unrealistic to expect a single biodegradable alternative to fulfil all requirements within the next few years. People should recognize the need for a more renewable and diversified ecosystem. Avoiding monopolies is the only way to ensure the sustainability of the industry and the well-being of our planet, which is our long-term goal.

What advice would you offer to a young entrepreneur just starting their journey?

If you decide to take a gamble, only wager what you can afford to lose. Maintaining this mentality is crucial because if you hold the potential sacrifices and losses too dearly and can't allow yourself to take risks, it’s a huge handicap.

But I'd rather see failure than not trying. Trying and failing is better than never taking the leap. The worst thing in life is not that something bad happens to you; it's that nothing happens to you. If nothing happens, you haven't truly lived. So go out there, make things happen, and be at the origin of your journey. Even if you fail, you will learn. If FlexSea fails, I will be disappointed, but I will have learned so much. It will be much easier to start another venture because I've become addicted to it now and can just do something else. You become battle-worn and better with every experience. So, try something.

What message would you like to share with anyone who is currently listening to or reading the article in the future?

Let's make plastic sexy with FlexSea. Follow along on our journey by visiting our website and subscribing to our newsletter, which we send out every 45 days. I enjoy documenting our progress in this journal, which helps trace the story we're creating. Your support means a lot to our team, and it's truly invaluable. Getting support from people like you who reach out to us and affirm that we're on the right path is priceless.

And we’re very glad to give that support. Replacing the materials of traditional plastic products with seaweed is extremely interesting— and extremely valuable. We wish you nothing but the greatest successes in FlexSea’s future.

To learn more about FlexSea, please see www.flex-sea.com.

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