Founder and CEO of startup PlanetCare, Mojca Zupan, on not giving up and not waiting for ‘perfect’ in order to get your product to market
Five years ago, Mojca Zupan was working as a corporate lawyer in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Today she is an ocean activist, founder and CEO of PlanetCare, a startup that pioneered the use of filters on washing machines to filter out plastic microfibres that would otherwise end up in the ocean. The French government consulted her prior to its announcement in 2020 of a new law mandating that every new washing machine sold from 2025 must have a filter.
“When I left that fancy room in the ministry of transport and ecology in Paris, I said ‘If there is nothing else I do in my life, I made this regulation happen.’ The French government had called us and said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking of regulating this but the industry keeps telling us that it cannot be done. I said it can be done, we have users and we can demonstrate it to you.”
So how did Mojca go from advising others on existing laws and regulation to being instrumental in the implementation of new one?
“I started PlanetCare five years ago because I’m a mother and all the emotional things,” she says. “First of all there was a touring exhibition on marine litter in Ljubljana so I went with the kids to ‘educate’ them and I got educated myself because I had no idea that there a huge portion of microplastics comes from washing machines. And then I saw the numbers: an average 6 kg load of laundry releases more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres into wastewater. At that time I had three little kids, two animals… I was washing a lot. I was like, ‘Wow – the most pollution that comes from my house is from my laundry room’. That was quite a moment.”
At the same time, Mojca was working for a client that had an issue with wastewater and so approached the research team to find out if it was possible to filter microplastics out, who said it would be too difficult. She then approached Dr Andrej Krzan, a research scientist at the Chemical Institute of Slovenia conducting work in the microplastics (she found him after a Google search).
“He said he’d had the same idea about 10 years ago but then I dropped it because it would’ve been really difficult. But I said come on let’s try!”
Dr Kzan is now co-founder of PlanetCare, one of the small team pushing to make washing machine filters a must-have rather than a niche product. For a while, Mojca describes setting up PlanetCare as like an ‘after school project’ because they all still had their day jobs. After a year, they had a prototype and had connected with Plastic Soup, one of the only NGOs at the time looking specifically into the problem of microplastics and washing. They facilitated an independent test in a lab in Italy. “It showed we might be on to something, we had good results, so I said, ‘Ok I’m leaving my job’.
“Because I was a lawyer I was familiar with the licencing model of business. I had no idea what production is, what sales is, what manufacturing is – I said, ‘OK we are doing to design this prototype, we’ll patent it and build it into the machines. We’ll go to big manufacturers and they’ll love it this will be our business model.’ “
They didn’t love it. “They said, ‘It’s not even us, it’s what you put in. It’s the textile industry. One member of the board of a really large producer told me that my love for the ocean would be best served if I just adopted a dolphin. I was so mad when I left that room! Men in their fifties telling me to adopt a dolphin!”
The experience spurred Mojca on. “I said, ‘OK then I will go the other way around’ and we built an external device.”
The company put an MVP on the market as a proof of concept. “My advice to other innovators is don’t wait for perfect, just get something out there.”
PlanetCare now has over 7,000 users. PlanetCare opened a market that didn’t exist before and competitors have sprung up. Mojca is not standing still. PlanetCare has launched a second generation filter that is made from recycled materials and includes a pop-up ‘by-pass’ valve that users can activate when they do not want to filter – perhaps when they are washing natural fibres, such as wool or cotton, that will not harm the environment but will clog up the filter. The change has come as a direct result of user feedback.
PlanetCare also recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to mass produce the second-generation filter. “A solution like ours only really becomes something once you have the mainstream. Yes, we have 7,000 users and I’m really proud of that but to save the ocean every washing machine in Europe or the western world should have a filter.”
There are a few final things that Mojca also passionately believes needs to happen: “We need optimism. We need leadership and regulation to incentive people to make better choices.”
Written By: Angela Everitt
10th October 2023