“There’s a lot of positive energy: we’re all facing the same problems, but we’re doing it together.“

Green start-ups from the Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, Norway and Sweden, the countries with a Postcode Lottery, can once again secure a place in the final of the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge.

Like so many great ideas, The Great Bubble Barrier was first dreamt up when a trio of friends met for drinks in an Amsterdam bar. Since then, cofounders Francis Zoet, Saskia Studer and Anne Marieke Eveleens have driven their innovative, non-invasive approach to redirecting and capturing river plastic significantly further.

Effectively a screen of air bubbles, the solution allows recovery of plastic waste before it reaches the ocean. In 2018, the start-up took home the €500,000 first prize in the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge. Here, Studer explains how her team’s big win is helping The Great Bubble Barrier deliver impact both in our waterways, as well as on dry land.



Please tell me about The Great Bubble Barrier
The journey started around five years ago. What was interesting was that this technology already existed and was being used for things like containing oil spills and keeping locks free from ice - but not for cleaning rivers. Our second test in the IJssel river in the Netherlands helped us understand the functionality of bubbles, how they react in water. We tested with oranges, not only because of their bright colour which made them great for tracing, but also because they have the same density as water. It meant we could see how water moves around the bubble screen. What happened was that the oranges bumped up against bubble barrier, and were slowly pushed towards the riverbank where they're easy to retrieve. We’ve since tested a range of materials and on average, collect 86% of objects.

How has winning Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge helped you move forward?
After winning we got so much attention from so many great organisations who reached out to ask how they could help. That was the first thing that directly affected us. Winning €500,000 in the competition wasn’t part of our strategy, so we really needed to make a new plan: what did we want to achieve, and how to do that? For example, the technology is now developed but a bigger challenge is connecting all parties - including municipalities, governmental organisations, land owners, and water management institutions - to get involved and take responsibility. So we recently hired our first employee to help us with that, she’s going to do all our account management. We really needed that to happen: by growing we can take on a lot more work, faster.

Why was Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge such a great fit?
For us it was really the right moment to apply. We had just finished crowd funding, so we had some money to implement the first bubble barrier but needed a big push to go from a small team doing amazing things, to a company. The prize money really helps with that. There are many other competitions out there, but they tend to only offer x Euros-worth of consultancy, for example. Green Challenge combines funding, as well as guidance. 

The Bubble Barrier from above

What kind of guidance did you receive?
After winning we got to enter the Green Challenge DeepDive programme, hosted by Rockstart. We really needed their expertise to help us plan how to best spend the prize money, and figure out next steps. We got that knowledge from their experts, as well as guidance on branding, messaging, strategy - even cashflow and PR. That helping hand is priceless for a young company. It’s something we didn't expect.

Advice and prize money aside, what are your other takeaways from this experience?
Being in a category of winners and finalists is like a recommendation stamp! There are so many excellent jury members looking at each application, so that gives you value as a company. You also become part of this bigger network of start-ups just like us. We're all working in different fields, but all face the same problems. It’s helpful to ask them how they tackle certain challenges, even small things like how they structure their week. There’s a lot of positive energy: we’re all facing the same problems, but we’re doing it together.

What’s next for The Great Bubble Barrier?
We’ve now developed the product, but there’s a lot more we want to find out - the impact we could have on micro-plastics, for example. We also plan to take the Bubble Barrier international, to a city within Europe. Then we want to focus on Asia, because the plastic problem there is way bigger than Europe due to awareness, regulation, as well as the practice of Western countries shipping trash to Asia. Ultimately, we’re all responsible.