Equa, led by CEO Kianna Legg, was chosen by a panel of expert judges as the first place winner in the Summer Lab entrepreneurship development programme. Summer Lab is a free programme offered by the University of Auckland’s Centre of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
The biotechnology student has been working on a sustainable hygiene start-up called Equa with a few friends since last year. “Living in a flat with five people, there was a shit ton of plastic on the bathroom floor. In all households, there’s always so much plastic. We want to create a product to take on the problem of plastic in the hygiene industry.” To tackle this problem, she developed liquid shampoo and conditioner formulations with sustainable packaging and will allow customers to refill their bottles at a refiller tap.
Summer Lab is a four week intensive program where students are “provided mentorship and professional advice” to create a start-up, says Legg. The programme began with an ideation session, where mentors take participants through the step-by-step process of creating and ideating an idea. “The first day, I pitched my idea in front of everyone. I really wanted to bring my idea forward but needed a minimum of five people. The second day, I managed to get a team together.” Now, the CEO of Equa is joined by five other students Ryan Gwynn, Dweep Kapadia, Sarah Hao, Yihui Xu, and Anuruddha Caldera.
Equa’s CEO is passionate about finding environmentally sustainable hygiene solutions using completely safe ingredients for its users and the ocean. “The environmental impact of plastic is huge, but there is an increasing demand for plastic each year despite this. A lot of shampoos and soaps have nasty chemicals that go into the ocean and damage marine life.” She says there are already sustainable hygiene products on the market that solve this problem but people are still using a ton of plastic.
During the programme, Equa conducted market validation and primary and secondary market research. “We found 88% out of 250 respondents to our survey prefer liquid soaps and shampoo to solid bars.” They discovered the packaging for many liquid shampoos are not as sustainable as it may seem. “Every single sustainable liquid option is greenwashing. Recyclable plastic rarely gets recycled, and bioplastics break down into microplastics which end up harming fish and the ocean.” She says companies are starting to use aluminium packaging but this is also problematic. “Aluminum is a material that requires one of the highest energy emissions to produce, and it also produces carbon dioxide.”
A mentor supported the team to develop a prototype for their product. “Our mentor Debra Hall, who has experience in the industry, gave us advice on understanding what the customer wants, our unique value proposition because the market is so saturated.” Hall also provided Equa guidance with intellectual property, financing and funding.
The programme culminates by pitching ideas to a panel of investors. Equa pitched against 18 other teams and was chosen as the first place winner. “A lot of people weren’t doing it to win, but for the experience,” Legg recognises. “I wasn’t thinking about winning; I just wanted to do the best pitch I could for my team.”
When reflecting on the experience, Legg says the experience pushed her out of her comfort zone and being in a diverse team helped her do things she wouldn’t have done without the program. “We learnt so much and now have a massive advantage in entering Velocity’s Innovation challenge and $100k Challenge. We are in contact with an angel investor and have formed a valuable connection with her.”
Equa’s next step will be doing consumer testing on their products. “We are going to have a stall at the Velocity Kickoff event and will be giving out free shampoo and conditioner samples to get user feedback.” Legg recommends the Summer Lab programme to anyone who wants to learn more about innovation and entrepreneurship, saying “it doesn’t matter what degree you are in.”