Spark of Ignition

First Published in BusNet on 4 March 2010

On average, a plastic carrier bag is used for nearly 20 minutes and goes on to last for another 400 years. Considering that about half of the 500 billion bags in circulation are plastic, this adds up to a major environmental problem for our planet.

This was one of the reasons why I was fascinated to attend last night's HEC MBA Alumni event on bio-packaging. By replacing petroleum based materials with bio-resins made from potato starch, a Swiss company of eco-protagonists have produced a bag that turns to compost in a couple of months.

Equally impressive for me was seeing how networking can provide the 'spark of ignition' to the process of business development – in this case, technology transfer.

Imagine a startup company that is pioneering a new technology, like the many great ventures that arise out of the EPFL. It represents a rich source of potential value for us, the end-consumer. The development within its labs normally takes place through a well-controlled scientific process...alongside some well publicised accidents, like the Post-it note!

Before consumers can enjoy the benefits of their solutions, the start-up needs to gain access to the market. Here the process is far more serendipitous - some would say it depends heavily on luck.

Last night I witnessed how just such a start-up – one that uses bio-resins made from a starch outside of the conventional 'food chain' – connected with John Darbyshire, head of Nestle's Product Technology Centre. Ten minutes was all they needed to communicate their pitch and to leave him with a sample of their product for his team to work with.

These are the doors that open when you network artfully. It's not luck, it's the result of detailed planning allied to a vision. As the Buddhist proverb goes, when the student is ready, the master appears. These were well prepared students.

There is no guarantee that their solution will stand up to the rigours of the Nestec technology centre, where the team understands profoundly the importance of life-cycle sustainability, and there is no quick-fix.

Nevertheless, ten minutes was all it took to chip-away at the 400 year problem.

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