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Women In Innovation: Turning Feather Waste Into Sustainable Insulation

22/12/2016 15:12

There is a vast amount of feather waste generated by the poultry industry every day. Currently, it's processed by converting the feathers into a low grade animal feed that cannot be widely used in the UK. At AEROPOWDER, we believe that feathers are an amazing natural material that can, and should, be used for many useful purposes in society. We are aiming to create unique feather-based products - like building insulation - that use this waste by-product in a novel way and are sustainable in creation, use and disposal.

I grew up in Nuremberg, in Germany, and after studying at the University of Magdeburg I quickly started trying to gain industrial & design experience - first at IBM Consulting, then BMW and the Volkswagen Group, where I worked as an International Management Trainee in Russia, Africa, and the Middle East. I then returned to academia, studying at the Dyson School of Design Engineering and the Royal College of Art. As a mother to a young daughter, I am extremely aware of the impact that our current society will have on the future generations, so I'm always searching for innovative solutions to problems facing society. During my master's degree I explored a wide range of keratin-based waste streams, but it became immediately apparent that waste chicken feathers are a large-scale problem. Given the amount of poultry we consume as a society, I felt inspired to engage with this particular issue- and and the interesting inherent physical properties of feathers immediately lent themselves to diverse and adaptive design materials.

After the initial prototyping phase, I moved to having discussions with industry contacts about what I was trying to achieve; my first eureka moment was during one of these meetings when it became apparent that the concept was generating serious interest from those with decades of commercial experience. At this point, my co-founder Ryan Robinson and I knew that we were onto something and it really motivated us to push forward. Another milestone in the formation process was applying to the Mayor's Entrepreneur Award as a business idea; highlighting our potential to make sustainable insulation material and improve the thermal performance of homes in London. We won and founded AEROPOWDER - and the momentum has continued, with further product development and industry contacts helping us on our way.

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It's all-too-easy to shy away from opportunities that distract you from your focus, but you can't neglect funding or the impact that support from business experts could have on the trajectory of a business. It became clear when talking to peers that InnovateUK are one of the most important sources of funding for innovative startups in the country. In particular, the cross-industry reach of InnovateUK was important to us considering the number of partners we plan to work with. I investigated what potential InnovateUK grants were available and I came across the INFOCUS awards. Applications can be taxing, but I found it to be fair and open - and sometimes it's a useful perspective on your business or idea. Laying the proposal out forced me to critically look at all aspects of my business and InnovateUK were also always helpful with their guidance at each stage, from writing the detailed grant proposal to the final presentation of the project on the interview day.

There are always challenges in the process, but pushing forward and embracing opportunities for funding and business support are crucial. I'm lucky enough to have an incredibly supportive family around me - without whom I couldn't have raised my daughter while studying and running a start-up. I have also been fortunate to have a network of friends from the German Business Foundation, the Dyson School of Design Engineering and the InnovationRCA who have helped me both personally and professionally. Having a friend as a co-founder in Ryan Robinson also helps during the tough times as an entrepreneur. If I were to distil some tips from my experience so far - they'd be:

  • When you start to take things too casually, remind yourself that someone out there is taking things seriously. So always work hard.
  • Always aim to improve yourself and be the best that you can be.
  • There will be hard times, so you need to always be ready to battle through them.

Elena & Innovate UK:

Elena has just been honoured as one of the 15 winners of Innovate UK's 2016 Women in Innovation awards, a series of awards dedicated to addressing the disproportionately low numbers of women entrepreneurs in the UK. Here, over a series of 15 posts we'll meet the inspiring innovators and entrepreneurs that Innovate UK is celebrating, each of whom will receive a tailored business support package, expert business mentor and £50,000 to help them reach their full potential.

Dr. Ruth McKernan CBE and Chief Executive of Innovate UK says: 'From fully autonomous drone software to affordable solar power technology and even a digital education portal which engages school children with the molecular world, the calibre of ideas is an eye-opening view into the talent and vision of the UK's female entrepreneurs. It is very clear that harnessing the talent of women entrepreneurs could significantly enhance UK economic growth. I am delighted that we are taking action; supporting and funding female entrepreneurs to help them succeed and inspire other women to come forward, apply for funding and turn their ideas into successful business.'

If you have an innovation or business idea and are looking for support then visit www.innovateuk.gov.uk for further information - go for it!

You can follow Innovate UK on Twitter at @innovateuk or subscribe to their YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/InnovateUK.

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