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With Sunrise Session, 22-year-old founder Benjamin Stern has a plan to rid plastics from our bathrooms
Benjamin Stern has been puzzling over the problem of plastic waste since he was 14 years old.
Benjamin Stern is an overachiever. At 16-years-old, he found himself pitching a line of plastic-free shampoo balls on NBC’s Shark Tank under the name Nohbo — wrapping filming with $100,000 in his pocket and Mark Cuban as his newest mentor.
By 2020, he had raised another $3 million in funding and opened up a 10,000 square-foot production and research facility in Florida. And this year, he launched his first consumer-facing brand — Sunrise Session — to showcase the technology he has been perfecting over the past seven years.
In the midst of all this activity, he also found time to train as a private pilot, work a cashier job at grocery store Wegmans, and get his high school diploma.
Creating a replacement for shampoo bottles
Stern’s big plan to get plastic bottles out of our bathrooms — he says Americans use enough shampoo bottles to fill 1,200 football stadiums every year — has come a long way since he started working on the business in 2014.
The product he pitched on Shark Tank was a solid shampoo ball “almost like a Lush bath bomb,” but after receiving his first investment check, he and a chemist got to work developing a biodegradable film that could hold a single serving of shampoo or body wash, and dissolve in the shower.
It’s not too dissimilar to a Tide pod, “although we had to rethink how these films are made, focusing on how fast they dissolve,” Stern says. While a Tide pod would take five minutes to dissolve if you took it into the shower (and leave behind a sticky gloop in your hand), Nohbo’s water-soluble film takes just a few seconds to melt away to nothing.
To manufacture the pods, Stern says a machine sucks the film into a cavity that’s the shape of a teardrop, before being filled with water-free formula. A water solution is then applied to melt the pod’s film just enough so that it glues together.
Getting people to ditch plastic
Stern’s solution is no doubt innovative — but now the big challenge is getting people to start actually taking these single pearl drops of shampoo and body wash into the shower with them.
Hotels were Stern’s first focus. Nohbo had struck a deal with a distributor in Europe to supply 76 million units. Nohbo even developed a second product — “soap slips,” which are squares of water-soluble film embedded with coconut hand wash — that could replace the bars of soap normally found in hotel bathrooms.
But then the pandemic hit, bringing the hospitality industry to a standstill.
Like so many businesses, Nohbo decided to pivot to selling directly to consumers. Stern instructed an agency, Bartlett Brands, to help him come up with a direct-to-consumer brand that he could sell his products under. “At first, we didn’t really have a clear idea of who we were targeting, or our product-market fit,” he says. “Bartlett really helped to clarify that and strategize the best approach.”
Fifteen months later, in August 2021, plastic-free personal care brand Sunrise Session hit the market.
Showcasing Sunrise Session
Pivoting to this new audience has required a bit of problem solving.
Stern says that when people buy online, they tend to do their research. “So there is that benefit over hotels, where the product is just placed in front of [people] without clear instructions,” he says. But people still aren’t quite used to handling delicate water-soluble products, and Stern says Sunrise Session still has to work on getting the message across that the pods and slips need to be stored in a dry place. “Because if you bring the whole paper tube into the shower, the products are going to melt,” he says.
Stern views overcoming these challenges as a necessary stepping stone to getting Nohbo to the scale he really wants to achieve. Sunrise Session can, in this sense, be considered a showcase brand which demonstrates to the world just what Nohbo’s tech can do.
If it’s successful in getting people to make a behavioral shift, it could encourage bigger brands to experiment with the pod format. Stern points to the commitments large consumer goods companies are making to cut plastic — such as P&G’s pledge to slash virgin plastics by 50% — as a further proof point.
“My vision is to work with all the consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies out there to do this same thing,” Stern says. “We want to partner with companies that share that same mission and drive.”
“Ultimately, our goal is probably to sell [the business] to a CPG,” he adds. “But only if we can stick to the ethos this company was founded on, similarly to how Ben & Jerry’s sold to Unilever and has its own ethos governing board.”