The flash of inspiration that led UVic grads Yamila Franco (BSc ’18, Cert ’18) and Paige Whitehead (BSc ’19) to jump into the business of bioluminescence wasn’t so much a lightbulb moment but a glow stick one. While enjoying the Shambhala Music Festival, Whitehead noticed thousands of the tiny light wands, popular at such events, sapped of all their chakra-aligning power, discarded like day-old noodles and headed to a landfill in the afterglow of the annual electronic music love-in.
Whitehead first got her Shambhala on in 2015. Although the outdoor event held on a working farm near Nelson, BC was a “transformational experience” for the then-19-year-old, she was taken aback by all the garbage left behind, particularly the abundance of single-use glow sticks.
“It was shocking after spending what felt like a really lovely time in nature with a lot of people who were very much like environmentalists and had great conversations about what we’re doing to the planet,” Whitehead says. “Then you walk out on this road that’s surrounded by garbage. It was really jarring.”
After returning to UVic to study microbiology, environmental studies and permaculture design, she started exploring the idea of a non-toxic, biodegradable light wand. The magical ingredient? Bioluminescence.
Partners in design
Whitehead grew up in the Comox Valley and, even as a child, was fascinated by the naturally occurring light source. She recalls swimming off Savary Island when she was 15 and being mesmerized by the glowing water around her. “I had no idea what it was… But that was actually an inspiration for me to go into microbiology. I always thought it was amazing.”
At university, she began researching how to recreate this chemical reaction that occurs in everything from jellyfish and algae to fireflies and fungi. She presented her idea for a bioluminescent wand at a knowledge-mobilization event hosted by UVic’s annual IdeaFest.
Franco, who was also there, was instantly impressed, and from there the two forged a partnership and created Nyoka Design Labs. The name Nyoka comes from the Swahili word for snake, which, according to the company’s website, “is a symbol for healing, transformation and rebirth”—concepts Nyoka’s founders have made their modus operandi.
For me, the meaning of everything I do with work and life is that it has to have an impact and it has to bring good to the world.
Yamila Franco, UVic science alum and CFO of Nyoka Design Labs
“I love science, but when I looked at my job prospects… I just didn’t feel I was using my skills and my drive and my energy to the best of its abilities. So driving into the unknown seemed like the best solution at that moment where I would actually be bringing more value to the world.”
In addition to being made from biodegradable materials, Nyoka’s light wands rely on a “cell-free bioluminescent system,” which creates light from an enzyme rather than living organisms or toxic chemicals found in typical glow-in-the-dark products.
“An enzyme you can think of as a microscopic biological machine,” Whitehead says. “Basically it helps break this chemical bond that produces light. And that takes a lot of energy to break that bond. In regular glow sticks, it’s a fairly similar concept… but it takes really harsh chemicals to get there. So it’s actually a principle of green chemistry to use an enzyme or to use a catalyst, because you end up not needing as harsh a reaction of materials.”
Coping with setbacks
In 2019, the young entrepreneurs were invited to Synergy Enterprise’s eco-business incubator program, Project Zero, which put them on the accelerated startup path of growing their team, accessing funds and participating in investment rounds.
Shortly after, they launched a successful $10,000 Kickstarter campaign; secured $100,000 in grant funding through Eco Canada’s Clean Leadership and Career Launcher program, were accepted into W Venture’s digital accelerator program supported by UVic and VIATEC; won the People’s Choice Award at the League of Innovators’ Founder Showcase; and received a $9,500 grant from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program, partnering with the UBC Materials and Manufacturing Research Institute’s Circular Economy Seed Funding Initiative.
However, Nyoka’s ascending star fell back to Earth last year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic putting the kibosh on their target market for glow sticks—live concerts and music festivals.
“So that was not comfortable,” Whitehead says with a laugh. “But there’s so many silver linings. We’ve moved forward as a company more in the past year than I think would have ever been possible if we had been spending our time doing promo, going to festivals, doing concerts.”
For Nyoka, which operates out of a makerspace in Courtenay, BC in conjunction with bio labs in Vancouver and New York through a partnership with leading biotechnology accelerator program Indie Bio, this meant focusing on research and development, building on their professional relationships and pivoting to industries that were the major users of glow sticks, namely outdoor safety, recreation (such as fishing) and training. Recently they hit another milestone, securing over $600,000 in investments.
Nyoka Design’s LÜMI bracelet. Photo credit: Michael Kissinger.
Nyoka’s pandemic pivot has meant its first commercially available product isn’t even a light wand. Franco describes their new LÜMI bracelet as similar to glow sticks “but more techy, more wearable.” It uses an industrial photo-luminescent pigment, which makes it glow in the dark, and it can be recharged by the sun or a cellphone light.
The founders of Nyoka Design Labs still manage to stay energized, despite the challenges.
“My energy comes from not only what I want to do but also from my work with community,” Franco says. “Knowing I’m doing something that I’m proud of, and that my ancestors would be proud of and my children will be proud of.”
Sounding like a true Shambhala Music Festival veteran, Whitehead is mid-walk when reached by phone and says she’s standing under her favourite tree. “Running a business is exhausting… especially in the startup mode, where everything we’re doing is new. So being outside, like walking through a forest, is almost better than coffee. If I’m tired, it’ll wake me right up, and I’ll usually put on an awesome song and dance around a little bit.”