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The Innovators

It's a ball to keep microfibers out of the ocean

This 12-part series highlights women-led ventures in the green economy.

I thought I was serving as a good ocean steward by not throwing plastic bottles on the beach or buying endangered or overfished sea creatures.

It turns out I was right, but only partly.

Each laundry cycle, I’m adding to the plastic pollution problem: The equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is poured into the ocean every minute. Everyone who wears and washes clothes is a culprit. And clothing in the United States consists of 60 percent plastic material. A 2017 study found (PDF) that nearly a million plastic microfibers can be released from a single fleece jacket when it is washed.

The good news is that there is a solution and its name is Cora Ball.

Cora Ball is a laundry ball designed using biomimicry. It emulates the way a coral reef naturally filters tiny particles from flowing water. Taking clues from nature, Cora Ball catches the microfibers that shed off our clothes while being washed instead of letting these microfibers seep into the wastewater stream and ultimately the oceans. It is advertised to trap about one-third of the microfiber in a typical laundry load.

Part of a team of biomimetics behind Cora Ball is Rachael Miller, a sailor, swimmer and skier. Miller spent her childhood on the New Jersey shore and later studied underwater archeology at Brown University. She has a unique passion for the intersection between science and art, and her journey to creating a consumer product that exemplifies both began almost 10 years ago. 

While the consumer packaged goods market is three times that of tech and has become a high growth niche among VC firms, CPG products often do not need that much money to expand.
In 2009, Miller was sailing by Matinicus Isle off the coast of Maine; beautiful as it was, a recent Noreaster left the island completely overlain with trash. "My husband turned and said to me: There is one thing that really makes you angry — ocean trash," Miller said. After removing garbage from the Matinicus shore, Miller had the impetus to start an organization to reduce water pollution. She founded the Rozalia Project, which leads four activities in water and ocean stewardship: cleanups; education; solutions-based research; and innovation. 

Yet the root cause of the ocean pollution problem, especially microfibers, continued to scream at Miller, and there were no existing suitable solutions.

"Everyone’s impulse was to say filter it; that’s obvious," Miller said with a sigh. But she knew the solution had to be simple and affordable. So she did what many founders do and started brainstorming. She gathered James Lyne, a professional sailor and co-founder of Rozalia Project and Brooke Winslow, a then-student in ocean engineering and environmental science who was interning with the Rozalia Project. However, as the team brainstormed it kept running into bottlenecks — the need to catch very tiny things and the need to keep water flowing. James then had the realization that nature already had the solution — coral.

Miller’s team designed and manufactured a prototype mimicking a coral reef, and with the help of a successful $350,000-plus Kickstarter campaign, Cora Ball was born and spun out from the Rozalia Project. 

In 2016, Miller and team conducted a Hudson River microfiber study to better understand what microfiber resembled in the wild. What they found was unexpected: The microfibers were more or less equally distributed along the river (not denser as one moved towards densely populated areas such as Manhattan); half of the fiber was plastic and half was non-plastic but still human-made.

"This may indicate that non-synthetic textiles are a bigger part of the problem than previously believed and that microfibers are being leaked into the water not only through water outlets, but also through ventilation systems such as clothes dryers," Miller hypothesized.

Miller and team conducted a Hudson River microfiber study to better understand what microfiber resembled in the wild. What they found was unexpected.
Cora Ball manufactures everything in Vermont, and the Cora Ball is made from 100 percent recycled-and-recyclable plastic.

"There is so much more awareness now than there was in 2016," Miller noted. Brands such as Patagonia and organizations such as the Outdoor Industry Association have taken on the challenge and helped to create a more mainstream focus on the microfiber issue.

Cora Ball has three full-time employees, and like many early stage ventures, each employee wears multiple hats and has the best position titles. (My favorite: Chief Ocean Lover.) Miller is a big fan of hiring from within and promoting interns to full-time positions. She recommends that those who have the flexibility "get in early" with a startup.

Cora Ball’s biggest challenge right now is managing its reliance on partners — the shipping and logistics side is key to a smooth, consumer-packaged good. Miller added, "We will also need to work smartly as a team going forward, figuring out when it is best to divide and conquer and when it is best to brainstorm together." They will look to hire more after their first major launch by the fourth quarter.

Miller has decided to not raise venture capital at this stage. While the consumer packaged goods market is three times that of tech and has become a high growth niche among VC firms, CPG products often don't need much money to expand. Cora Ball can grow the old-fashioned way — through sales and good operations management.

Cora Ball’s solution is built to be elegant and prevent us from ultimately "eating our fleece, our yoga pants and our gym clothes," as Miller describes of the plastic polluting waterways and eventually working its way into the foodstream.

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