During her doctoral thesis at Hamburg University of Technology, Anne Lamp made an exciting discovery: In the laboratory, she came across a process that enabled a material to be obtained from plant residues from the agricultural industry that functions as a natural plastic alternative.
The process engineer, had already co-founded a cradle-to-cradle group in Hamburg during her studies. With her discovery, she was able to combine both concepts: biocircularity, from the cradle-to-cradle principle, and the use of biobased residues. Thus a novel material was born: traceless. It has similar properties to plastic, but consists of purely natural substances and is completely degradable. It is produced using plant residues from food production, resulting from the processing of crops.
Anne then met her co-founder Johanna Baare during the impact incubator programme “Project Together”. With her business expertise, the economist ensured that the technical discovery became a marketable business concept. Since the founding of traceless in 2020, the two of them and their team have won one startup award after another. For example, traceless was named winner of the TOP50 Startups 2021 and co-founder Johanna Baare recently won the German Startup Award as Newcomer of the Year 2022.
We met Anne, CEO and co-founder of traceless, for an interview and found out what really got her started and why an environmentally friendly idea alone is not enough.
Dear Anne, it’s great that you took the time to talk to us. Would you tell us what is revolutionary about traceless and how it can be used?
Anne: We at traceless have developed a material that has similar properties to plastic, but is made of purely natural substances. If traceless ends up in the environment, it is easily biodegradable like natural materials and thus helps solve global plastic pollution. Because we use renewable resources in an efficient process, our material is far more climate-friendly than plastic. We also rely on the high scalability of our technology.
Our base material can then be further processed by the plastics industry into films, coatings, solid materials or adhesives, thus replacing plastic in many different products. Especially for products that have a short useful life or where recycling is difficult, traceless is a truly sustainable alternative. These can be disposable packaging in the food or non-food sector, single-use articles, products with high abrasion, as well as “hidden plastics” in adhesives and coatings. The applications are quite diverse.
From the development of the material to the founding of your startup in 2020, what were the most important steps you took and lessons you learnt?
Anne: The early days were characterised by a lot of personal commitment. To start with, we worked with a small team entirely on a voluntary basis. Then, in spring 2021, we were able to complete our seed investment round and thus start building our pilot plant. Another milestone was in autumn 2021 when we were awarded a €2.42 million grant from the European Innovation Council (EIC), which was a huge success and a real recognition for us. This year, together with our pilot customers, we are launching the first products from traceless on the market in test runs, which will be another exciting moment.
What tips do you have for founders in Hamburg? And what services from the startup ecosystem have supported you?
Anne: Have the courage and look for comrades-in-arms! Of course, the path is not always easy, but if you have a great idea and can convince others of it, it’s worth it. We have also had good experiences with founding in a team, so that we can get different perspectives. Of course, the network is also essential: especially in the technology sector, a startup is a big step that involves a lot of work, risk and resources.
From the beginning, we had broad and active support in the local Hamburg startup ecosystem – from institutions like Startup Dock and beyourpilot, from funding programmes like Calls for Transfer and IFB InnoRampUp, but also from Hamburg University of Technology, where our research roots lie. Of course, an important part of the Hamburg network for us was also the contacts to committed local first-time customers like OTTO, and to investment partners like Planet A. The fact that traceless 2021 was ranked first among the TOP50 Startups 2021 shows what is possible with combined forces.
An important topic when founding a company is financing and funding? How did you tackle this issue?
Anne: Bringing a hardware-based and innovative technology like traceless to the market means high investments – after all, we have to build production facilities. That means we also had to think big when it came to funding right from the start. At the beginning of 2021, we turned around our seed funding of just over €1 million. Then, at the end of last year, we received a commitment from the EU for EIC Accelerator funding of another €2.42 million, which means we can now take our next big scaling step.
How would you describe the team behind traceless? What makes you stand out?
Anne: In three words: motivated, ambitious and interdisciplinary. Our team is made up of people of conviction. We really want to make a difference and contribute to a more sustainable future. We are currently 22 committed employees from the fields of process engineering, environmental sciences, chemistry, economics and finance, design and marketing. What unites us is our pioneering spirit: Working with natural polymers – “nature’s plastics” in a way – is still in its infancy, and our team is doing pioneering work in many respects. This tension between huge market demand and great challenge is what drives us and makes working on traceless exciting every day.
For us, sustainability means ...
... using the potential of innovative technological solutions and thinking holistically. A solution is only sustainable if it has a positive impact in all aspects. Ultimately, holism also means seeing ourselves as part of a system – ecological solutions require not only green startups like us, but also committed partners from the processing industry, environmentally conscious consumers, as well as impulses from science and politics. Only together can we solve the complex challenges of our time.
What is your vision and what are your plans for the future with traceless?
Anne: Our vision is a world in which materials have a positive impact on the environment, and pollution and waste are a thing of the past. This vision ties in with the cradle-to-cradle principle: instead of just reducing our negative footprint, we want to leave a positive one. Our role model is the oldest circular economy in the world: nature.
Just like all natural materials, traceless can integrate into the biological cycle and leaves no harmful traces there. With traceless, we want to contribute to our vision, and in the long term replace plastic wherever it can end up in the environment, where it is important that the material degrades. To get there, we need to scale up our technology as quickly as possible and expand our production capacities. We are working on this every day.
Thank you very much for talking to Startup City Hamburg. We wish you continued success and plenty of positive impact.