The company behind chipless, metal-free, paper RFID tags joins Sting Bioeconomy

PulpaTronics has developed chipless, metal-free, paper RFID tags. The company’s unique and groundbreaking technology significantly reduces the environmental footprint of RFID tag production.

We met the founders, Chloe So and Barna Soma Biro. They are both eager to share their thoughts and experiences, and happy to join forces with Sting Bioeconomy.

PulpaTronics circular RFID tag.

Chloe and Soma met when they were both starting a 2 yearlong MA/MSc in Innovation Design Engineering jointly hosted at the Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art. Just a couple of years later, they are the founders of the exciting startup PulpaTronics.

– We met on the first day of the masters and were assigned to the same group for a super short project. I think our working styles clicked immediately as they were so complementary. When we were asked to form groups for a 3-month long group project in our final year, we were joined together by the interest in reducing the human impact on the environment, says Soma.

Soma answers Q&A from the audience during the Greenhouse Demo Day pitch at The Royal Institution.

Passion for Sustainable Tech

In a call to come up with ways to reduce human impact on the environment, Soma, Chloe and two others started researching cutting edge technology and brainstorming ways to apply the technology in practice. After narrowing down the research to look at biodegradable electronics, the tangible and applicable solution of recyclable RFID tags came to be. For both Soma and Chloe the project was ignited by passion, and the decision to create a startup was not given, but came naturally as interest grew for their product.

With a background in biological sciences and a drive to design and build things, Soma has long been interested in creating solutions that are less harsh on the environment. He also explains, – I was always a little bit disappointed when I looked at the discussion section in research papers and I would see all these potential applications that never actually came alive. I think that was part of my motivation to join this masters and further develop this project.

Chloe has a background in engineering and product development. While working for a venture capital startup accelerator, she was constantly inspired by founders taking the leap to move innovation forward. – But I realised that the more products we bring to the world, the worse it is for the environment, so I was always really fascinated by the use of circular alternatives or new materials, she explains. Having worked out a successful balance, they make a great duo – Chloe does more of the customer-facing side of things and Soma is on the opposite end with tech, product and IP.

Chloe exhibiting PulpaTronics at the 2023 IET Excellence and Innovation Awards. (PulpaTronics wins 3 awards at the ceremony).

Adding by taking away

So what are PulpaTronics bringing to the table? They bring a solution to a problem I think most of us were unaware of and are currently contributing to. In fact, they add by taking away. As we take steps towards a digitalized world, almost all hang tags on the clothes we buy are embedded with an RFID tag. While this makes tracking inventory, theft control and purchasing easier, the metals and microchips that go into making a tag are both a hassle to extract and a hazard when thrown into the trash together with the paper that encases it. This is where PulpaTronics comes in.

The team receiving a special honorable mention prize at the 2023 Isola Design Awards in Milan.

Throughout the interview, substraction is a recurring theme. Soma explains how part of this focus can be attributed to a paper he read in Nature around the time when they were starting the project, – It was explaining the human bias to solve problems by adding to them rather than removing complexity from these issues. Chloe explains; – Everything we do, we try to design with nature in mind. The whole ethos behind what we are trying to build is trying to add value by removal rather than addition. And for the venture to make the most impact, being able to sell to businesses at the right price so that people can adopt the products is also important.

– In the RFID market there are eco-tags already, but no one is actually implementing them, and it’s because of the premium price point, Chloe continues. The already existing products are too expensive to be efficiently implemented at scale, and at best address issues of sourcing materials. With the PulpaTronics tag being designed to align with human habits and already existing systems, the product instead has a close loop system in mind and works in a circular economy.

Turning paper into a conductive material

The value add of PulpaTronics’ product is the paper substrate itself, that was developed during the masters programme; as well as the laser technology used to turn the paper into a conductive material.
– That means that we don’t have to mine, extract and ship metals from the other side of the planet. That’s quite chemical heavy and it’s expensive and polluting, says Soma. Just using the paper as starting material and energy to power the laser machine makes the process cheaper, more local and more sustainable. He remembers some of the breakthrough moments as a team; – Sitting around and watching, waiting for it to work – and then it magically worked! It’s extremely rewarding and super memorable. After trying and testing the project in esteemed labs and receiving great feedback in various competitions and from surrounding researchers, they decided to turn the project into a venture. With over 18 billion RFID tags made for single use each year, PulpaTronics is able to take part in changing an entire industry, and the timing is perfect for the rollout of their eco-tags.

The team showcasing PulpaTronics at the Greenhouse Demo Day event.

Now, the time has come for PulpaTronics to join forces with Sting Bioeconomy. The first step is to explore further possibilities for the material used as paper substrate. Sting Bioeconomy’s expertise in paper and other hard plant-based material is a great fit as we move forward. Soma explains; – Any kind of hard plant-based material could be suitable for our lasering technology. Exploring a bit more what some other suitable plant-based materials could be, is something we are very curious to do, and hope to develop further with Sting Bioeconomy.

The next steps also include scaling up and finding a combination of suppliers and manufacturers that suit the venture. – We would love to further both commercial and external partnerships going forward. And we are always keen to collaborate on grants and projects, says Chloe. – And talent! We are always keen to get in touch with people who are passionate about this and who would potentially want to join our team! Soma adds.

– We are excited to start working with PulpaTronics; strengthening our connection to the UK market and welcoming them to our body of great companies. PulpaTronics will be able to provide businesses with more sustainable and affordable inventory solutions that reduce environmental impact. Their energy and innovation helps us take vital steps towards a more circular economy, says Victor Isaksen, CEO Sting Bioeconomy.

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