Alabaster artisans in Luxor, Egypt.
Alabaster artisans in Luxor, Egypt.

Young entrepreneurs represent one of the most promising sources of material innovation. Although early career inventors may lack established manufacturers' physical and financial resources, they often exhibit two uncommon advantages: fresh ideas and a passionate commitment to a cause.

The Material Lab 25 (ML25) program seeks to capitalize on these strengths while providing early career entrepreneurs with much-needed assistance. Organized by the Design Haus by Esorus, an architecture and design hub located in Cairo’s trendy Maadi district, ML25 is “an early-stage incubator program specifically designed to support startups dedicated to innovating in the field of sustainable materials.” The competitive platform is akin to a product manufacturer boot camp, offering an intensive nine-month education in the technological and financial aspects of establishing a successful business.

In addition to representing a beneficial resource, ML25 is notable for its location. Cairo is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, with an expected 40 million inhabitants by 2050. Unsurprisingly, this growth is accompanied by increasing environmental stresses, including climate extremes and a growing waste problem. ML25’s entrepreneurs' contributions are directly born out of these difficult circumstances, making these aspirational ideas all the more inspiring and valuable as models for other contexts facing similar pressures. Here are a few ML25 material innovations I will be watching this year and beyond.

The VeryNile Shop makes its products from an unlikely material source: the Nile River. This woman-owned startup simultaneously tackles multiple environmental and social challenges in its mission to offer functional recycled and upcycled goods. VeryNile manufactures soft and rigid polymer sheet materials from plastic garbage collected from the Nile—a crucial resource in this arid climate. This consumer waste includes single-use plastic bags, bottle caps, and detergent bottles amassed by local fishermen and sorted by the company’s plastic operators. This unlikely feedstock is transformed into new tote bags, pouches, laptop sleeves, furnishings, and various decorative objects. VeryNile co-creates its products with local artisans, including up to 30 women, providing them with sustainable income and occupational training.

Plastale is another startup that focuses on recycling waste plastics. The company repurposes discarded polymers into two types of composites: one that is 100% plastic and one combined with chemically pre-treated agricultural waste from date palm fibers and other local crops. These sheet materials are intended to replace wood products, such as plywood, in building construction since wood materials are scarce and expensive in Egypt. The company has installed two roofs made from Plastale on residences lacking rooftops. Like VeryNile, Plastale collaborates with local waste collectors and fabricators, focusing on unemployed youth. Last September, the organization was selected as Start-up of the Month by the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Center (ISC3) in Bonn, Germany.

Food waste is the primary feedstock of Coraft. Co-founders Ahmed Hussein and Basant Tarek, students in the Faculty of Applied Arts at Helwan University, launched the company in response to Cairo's burgeoning volume of corn refuse. Grilled corn is a popular Egyptian snack regularly served by street vendors, but discarded corn contributes to some 20,000 tons of waste generated yearly, according to the founders. Coraft produces four products from this unwanted material: veneer, leather, paper, and tubes. Coraft Veneer, for example, is made by drying husks that are soaked and ironed into flat sheets that can subsequently be color-dyed and adhered to various substrates.

Shell Homage has identified another food waste stream as its focus. The startup transforms disposed eggshells and various nut shells into biodegradable composites intended to replace petroleum-based plastics. The resulting material has an aesthetic not unlike stone, exhibiting vibrant swirling patterns, with surface textures varying from rough to smooth. Sheets can be opaque or translucent, and thicknesses range from 3 mm to 2.5 cm. According to the manufacturer, the impermeable composite is easy to drill, sand, laser-cut, and CNC machine and may be modified by various processes, including 3D printing, thermoforming, and injection molding. Shell Homage is also colorfast, resisting UV light and heat up to 200°C.

Habu Vase.
Habu Vase.

Luxor-based Habu aims to rejuvenate the local stone carving industry. Historically, visitors to the famous Valley of the Kings and Hatshepsut’s Temple supported the growth of an artisanal community working to transform local alabaster, basalt, granite, and limestone into sculptures and decorative objects. However, this industry has been hurt by the decline of tourism in recent years. Habu aspires to revive this community by expanding the use of alabaster and other stones beyond tourist trinkets into contemporary design products. Simple conical, tapered, and semispherical vessels make for attractive candle vessels, light fixtures, and vases that appeal to the design furnishings marketplace and have begun to resurrect this struggling local trade.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine.

Read more:The latest from columnist Blaine Brownell, FAIA, includes a review of the Grand Egyptian Museum, a look into Cairo's informal settlements, a profile on textile designer and weaver Suzanne Tick, and he also looks at emerging carbon capture and storage technologies, the blue economy, and AI's impact on supply chain management.

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