Entrepreneurs: Designers Christoph Rochna of Germany and Mario Bauer of Austria, with Benjamin Kwitek, an entrepreneur from Colorado Springs, Colo., founded Papernomad, which makes biodegradable sleeves for mobile electronic devices.
"Aha" moment: Rochna's girlfriend wanted mismatched flea-market chairs to go with their new dining table. Knowing it could take months to find the right chairs, Rochna fashioned temporary ones out of corrugated cardboard packaging from IKEA purchases. "The chairs lasted for six months, which got me thinking, If this crudely constructed cardboard furniture could last this long, it's something we should pursue," Rochna recalls. In 2009, he invited former colleagues Bauer and Kwitek to partner in a business. With $200,000 in seed capital, the trio launched Vienna-based Papernomad.
Construction paper: Papernomad partnered with an Austrian manufacturer to create a patented biodegradable composite of paper, viscose fabric and biopolymer.
"We had to invest a lot of time into the search for the right components and manufacturers," Rochna says. "[Because] most manufacturers rely exclusively on polymers from fossil sources, it proved challenging to find someone who could help us."
Tearing ahead: They had immediate success with their first product, biodegradable furniture for outdoor festivals, which was purchased by the likes of Coca-Cola and Red Bull for use at international events. But Rochna had a different vision for Papernomad. In 2010, he came up with the idea of using the paper composite to make protective sleeves for iPads and iPhones. His reasoning: Most cases are made of plastic and neoprene, materials that will outlast the devices they are protecting and, eventually, end up in landfills. "Considering the amount of problematic waste caused by the devices themselves, it seemed sensible to create sleeves that lasted just as long as the device that lives in them," Rochna explains.
The Papernomad team abandoned furniture production and refocused. Their Zattere product, a protective sleeve for the iPad, hit stores across Europe last year. It gained immediate attention, generating revenue of $250,000 in the second half of 2011. Earlier this year, it won a prestigious red dot award for product design.
Cases with conscience: Staying true to the core principle of sustainability has been challenging. "Compromising the things we believe in would mean betraying ourselves and the people who buy our products," Rochna says. Instead of mass-producing products overseas, Papernomad is committed to keeping its manufacturing operations in Europe. All packaging is made from 100 percent recyclable paper and cardboard and printed with nontoxic inks. All products are shipped using carriers that offset their carbon emissions.
Take note: Rochna wants Papernomad products to function as canvases for individuality. It's his hope that each sleeve becomes a miniature scrapbook "that tells its owner's story."
Cost: Products retail for $34 to $58 and are sold via Papernomad.com and at stores throughout Canada, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.
Next chapter: As consumer demand increases, Papernomad plans to pursue expansion into the U.S.