Nana Britwum and Jannice Newson, 2019 BOOST winners. Photo courtesy of Joshua Johr and Lillian Augusta
We here at Delta are getting excited about BOOST 2020! Taking place in November, this year’s event will be conducted remotely, though its basic substance remains the same: local entrepreneurs will pitch their sustainable social ventures as registrants cast ballots to award $5,000 to one or two promising startups. Last year, BOOST raised nearly $30,000 to both help emerging entrepreneurs in sustainability and benefit Delta Institute’s mission of collaborating with communities across the Midwest to solve complex environmental challenges.
This year, we decided to check in with previous winners about their ventures and the role BOOST played in their development. To start off, we chatted with Jannice Newson and Nana Britwum, 2019 BOOST winners and founders of Lillian Augusta, a venture that is creating healthy, sustainable braiding hair for Black women.
Tell me about Lillian Augusta: how did it get started? What problem are you trying to solve?
JN: We both wear braids, and we found ourselves complaining about braids one night: when you wear braids, things like itchy scalps, skin acne, and neck pain occur due to the braids being made from plastic. Then we also started to think about the other implications of plastic hair, beyond our own personal discomfort: it’s contributing to plastic pollution, and made from possibly carcinogenic material, so there are health and environmental consequences, too. Since we both have a background in STEM, we gravitated towards a plant-based solution, which is how we arrived at making the decision to make plant-based braiding hair. Plant-based braiding hair is lightweight and toxin-free, and it makes for a much more comfortable experience.
That’s an inspiring mission — equal parts social justice and environmental sustainability. Out of curiosity, what kinds of plants are you using?
JN: Right now, we’re looking to create our braiding hair out of phragmites. Phragmites is an invasive wetland plant with a fibrous composition, and people are paying millions of dollars a year to get rid of it, so why not create a use for it? We’ve been going out into wetlands ourselves to cut down phragmites and process them in a lab, but that was halted due to the pandemic. We’ve since shifted to doing things in a makeshift basement-type lab. We were able to make a plant-based prototype, and we’re in the process of figuring out how to move our prototypes into products.
That’s fabulous! How did BOOST help you develop Lillian Augusta?
JN: BOOST really was the first significant amount of money we received; we hadn’t bought anything at all up until then, because we didn’t have any money. So it was really the beginning of actually working on the product.
NB: As Jannice mentioned, BOOST was a huge deal for us, because that was our first form of funding; that gave us the confidence to keep going and gain more funding.
How has Lillian Augusta changed since BOOST? Can you recall an exciting moment or victory from the past year?
NB: We’re still definitely growing. We were awarded the Carbon180 Entrepreneurship in Residence program, and we won the Michigan Business Challenge — those are some huge highlights. We also had the opportunity to go to Southern California to participate in the Greenhouse Initiative, run by Sambazon and the Ecology Center. And more recently we were in the Desai Accelerator for recent Michigan grads out of the University of Michigan, and in Galvanizer, which is out of Stanford University.
Wow! That’s a lot of successes. What are you looking forward to right now?
JN: We’re really looking forward to having a product that we can share, as our prototypes are not quite yet at the stage where we can show them to people. We’re really looking forward to testing them with potential customers, so we can hear what they’re interested in and what they would like improved.
Any last thoughts?
JN: We are currently hiring! We’re about to start soliciting applications for a CFO and a CMO, and further connecting with textile experts.