A veterinarian’s vision to make the industry more sustainable
In today’s podcast, we meet with Stephanie Stubbe from Melbourne Australia. She’s a practicing veterinarian who founded Anipal, the first Australian company to make dog collars and leads from recycled plastics.
In ten short months she’s managed to sell out her first order without spending a dime on marketing. And yet this company was never about the money, but a way to champion changes to the vet industry to be more sustainable in their practices.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Plastics Revolution with Stephanie Stubbe from Anipal.
COMPANIES, ORGS & PRODUCTS MENTIONED IN THIS PODCAST:
Hosted by Tammy Ven Dange
Produced by Jonny Puskas
Theme Music by Joseph McDade
All Rights Reserved 2019
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
T: Host Tammy Ven Dange
S: Guest Stephanie Stubbe, Founder of Anipal
T: Steph welcome to the show.
S: Thank you very much for having me.
T: I find it interesting that we both have some sort of tie back to RSPCA.
T: Now for our listeners not based in Australia, RSPCA is like the ASPCA in America. And I used to be at RSPCA ACT which is the Australian Capital Territory and you’re even working right now at RSPCA Victoria.
S: Yeah I think it’s absolutely amazing we both got the interests in animal welfare and animal protection, and then that has consequently later led us to exploring the plastic space as to how we can prevent that affecting animals and wildlife.
T: That’s right. I think there’s a lot of people that have a common interest between animals and the environment.
T: Let’s talk about you for a second because when I did my research it looked like you just recently graduated from school as a vet in the last couple of years. Have you always known that you wanted to be a vet?
S: Not exactly. I grew up on a sustainable beef farm and animals have always been number one in my family’s life. We were never allowed to have dinner or be fed until all the animals were fed and looked after. So, I guess in my family, animals have always been number one and science has always been really important because both my parents have a science background.
S: And consequently, I grew up always knowing I wanted to get into science, but I also loved languages and I loved to adventure. So, I originally ended up in arts and then quickly realised that wasn’t quite for me. I was studying languages and then moved to science and then consequently was like, “Of course! Vet science. That makes perfect sense.”
T: So you became a vet and you were working as a vet for the last couple of years.
T: And then the reason why I actually found you was not because of our RSPCA connection. It was because I was looking for a product that I can add as part of my crowdfunding campaign – as I suppose – a prize if people do not want to buy my product but wanted to get involved in some way.
T: And because my product has to do with pets, I was looking for some sort of recycled plastic dog accessory I suppose.
T: And that’s when I found so much public media around your story. How did you get involved in plastics and how did Anipal start?
S: Yeah, so it’s a bit of a long story.
T: We have time.
S: Yeah, I think so. I guess growing up in the environment and animals has always been at the forefront of my family’s life. We live on the Murry River where it periodically floods. And when the flood waters recede, there is plastic and litter everywhere. So then over the next few months, you are picking up things all around the paddocks so that the cattle don’t eat them, and you want to look after your land. So, waste management has always kind of been at the forefront of my mind.
S: And then we actually went away to Kenya as a family. Just when I graduated vet school, we went for a horse ride in the Maasai Mara. And entering Kenya, you have to make sure you don’t have any plastic bags on you. They pat you down, and they look in your bags to make sure you don’t have any plastic bags on you, or you are sent to prison.
S: They have been so firm in implementing that law which is fascinating. And then when we entered Kenya, and then we went horse riding mile after mile right in the middle of this just amazing landscape that is so pristine and untouched – you just get overwhelmed by the beauty.
S: Then I came back here, and I had a bit of a culture shock back in Melbourne because it’s so busy and there’s pollution everywhere. It just gets you thinking, and then I started working as a vet and quickly realised how much plastic there is actually in our profession, and it can be really hidden as well.
INSPIRATION FOR ANIPAL
S: And you don’t know about it – including dog collars and leashes. And that’s where I really had a shock because I discovered my own dog’s collar, which feels like natural fibre, it was actually made out of virgin plastic.
T: When did it go from a concern or even an advocate of reducing your plastic consumption to, “I want to do more?”
S: It actually happened immediately. Like that moment I put that collar on Billy, and then I actually went straight to the computer and started googling and researching it immediately when I realised it was made from virgin plastic.
S: I was like, “Well this is absurd. We have so much plastic that’s out there in the environment and its waste streams. We need to be replacing this with recycled versions and just help the circular economy.”
S: It actually was an instantaneous thing.
T: So, were you just looking to buy a different kind of collar at the time?
S: No, funnily enough. That was where my science brain came in. It was like, “Oh my gosh, we need to trial if we can make the same product with the same durability but out of recycled plastic.” So, I guess I disappeared down that scientific investigation pathway, and I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I had a recycled product in my hand to know if it could be an equivalent.
T: I’m just trying to figure out from an explorer perspective if you started down a search to say, “Do people make collars out of recycled plastic, and I want to buy one?” versus “I’m gonna make one.” I mean that’s a totally different way of looking at it.
S: Yeah. I had never thought about, “Do I need to buy one?” It was always, “Right. We need to be changing this as an industry as a whole.” I think it was to that because I had been shocked and shaken that much.
I was automatically thinking this is overwhelming, and this is messed up. We need to change.
T: As an industry?
T: Now I noticed when I did some research on your background that you’ve been involved in veterinarian groups even when you’re younger.
S: Yes. So, when I was at vet school I actually became involved in a program called SproutX and that helps ag(riculture) tech start-ups find their feet and go through an accelerated program to get funding and find partners in the industry to help take their ideas to the next level and test to see if it can be validated and if it can be commercialised.
S: So that’s where I worked throughout Uni(versity). I worked for a while there – post uni as well. We had a project that I needed to finish, and then that’s when I moved across into vet medicine when that was done. So I guess the “trialling something to see if we can solve a problem” had always been a bit ingrained in me. That was just my automatic jump when I discovered this problem.
T: Did you also start a not for profit as well?
S: Oh yes. So, during vet school I got a bit alarmed that so many of us finished the program, and some of us will end up running businesses if we want to make a relatively stable income in the vet industry. It can be really challenging if you work as an employee and so sometimes if you want a bit more flexibility it’s best to become a business owner.
But that comes along with a whole lot of its own stresses and requires a whole new skill set that we actually weren’t getting trained for during vet school program.
S: And so that’s when I went about doing some more research – that scientific element again and discovered that in the US they have a big program that’s run between vet schools over there by their Veterinary Business Management Association. And they provide programs for vet students to be able to gain certification in business skills, and so they can apply that when they finish vet school. Because the vet is in a medical program, but if you are going to run a business that survives you need to have some business skills as well. So, I developed a similar thing here at Melbourne University.
T: OK. Well, that would explain your business savvy as well. I suppose, also for me doing the research on your background, was recognising that you already had this view that it was never just about yourself – that you always thought of it as “an industry problem, not a personal problem” which is a very different perspective than most.
S: That’s interesting. Yeah. I’ve never really thought about it like that.
S: I guess I’ve always seen us as a bit of a collective and –
If any change is going to be made, we need to do it on an industry-wide level if we’re actually going to have a significant change in movement in behaviour.
T: At this point in time, I’m not sure how you made it through school because you had so many other projects going on. It sounds like you were quite busy.
S: I don’t know. My poor partner – he sometimes says that he has a diploma in vet science.
T: He probably knows a lot right now.
T: It’s true – I know Australia’s market, I’m not sure about the American market – but they’re probably similar that a vet like yourself can go through years and years of school and get paid less than someone who’s in IT who just came out of a really basic program.
T: That’s pretty discouraging for vets to stay in as a vet for a period of time, and that’s probably why we have a shortage of vets here in Australia.
S: Yeah exactly.
T: So let’s go back to this business sense because you’ve obviously learned a few things from that program you set up to learn more about running a vet clinic. Was that translatable when you decided, “Yeah, I’m going to start a business. I’m going to learn how to make collars out of recycled plastic, and yeah I’m a vet but I’ll figured it out.?” I mean – was that useful for you to use that information? Was that the foundational skills that you brought with you to start a business?
S: I think developing BAVS – Business Association for VET Students definitely did help with Anipal in regards to – not necessarily the content that we learned – that was more specific to vet practices. But it was about how you can create a movement, and you can encourage people, and you can plant a seed that can grow.
S; I think realizing that you can do that – if you see a problem and you talk to people and discover that they too feel that problem, and then you test it a little bit and then you can help it grow. It’s learning that – I think gave me the confidence to be like, “Hey, this is worth a shot. This is a much bigger issue, and this is a lot more of an important issue.”
And I think vets, in particular, are at the forefront of this issue and we’re in a position where we really should be helping combat that.
S: I think it is our responsibility a bit. I know that’s saying a really big thing. We’re not causing it. I think it’s on us a little bit to help lead the change.
T: So, you decided to start a business. It doesn’t sound like it was ever about the money though?
S; No, it’s definitely not been about the money. It’s entirely been, “Can we help transition our industry across, and can we prove that this is a viable alternative?”
T: Yeah and at the same time in order to be sustainable, you have to be able to make a profit.
T: So, one of the things I think you told me the other day was that you’ve actually never spent a dime on marketing.
S: No. No. I would have no idea how or where to even go to that. I vaguely know from Sprout X, there’s Google AdWords and there’s Google ads and just things that was taught in the program to our start-ups. But I’ve not actually approached that at all.
S: I think the fact that I’ve still been working clinically four days a week has meant that I’ve really only been focussing on product and product testing and “Can we change the industry? Is the industry receptive?”
S: Pushing my product out there hasn’t been a focus. It’s more been about, “Hey, what do we think vets and the vet industry? Can we do this and try and use it as a proof case that we can do this another way?”
HOW DO YOU MANUFACTURER DOG COLLARS?
T: So let’s go back with your scientific brain to starting this from scratch – because I know from my own personal experience that unless you somehow grow up into this industry, most of us have no clue really how to manufacture something. Let’s walk through this process. Ok, you decided that there’s got to be a better way to make a sustainable collar for dogs. Then how did you find out what to do next?
S: A lot of research and a lot of calls. So I’ve discovered one thing I think I do okay in, and I’m comfortable with is calling up strangers and asking them a lot of questions – and finding out that information in a way where I’m normally calling them because I’m fascinated about something that they’re doing. Then it’s remarkable how welcoming people are to actually talk to you about what they do, what their profession is, and (they) help when you say, “Hey I’ve got this crazy idea. I’m trying to figure out how to do this.” They’re normally really receptive to be like, “Oh, you should talk to this person or this person.”
T: Did you go trying to figure out how to manufacture the collar first or did you go trying to find the material first?
S: I actually went trying to find the material first. First, I discovered how the process of polyester is made – how plastic is melted down and then it’s made into flakes or pellets, and then that is spun into yarn.
S: And that’s where I’d say, “Hey, is there ideally a manufacturer here in Australia or a recycler that does this process?” And then I started calling around a lot of different manufacturers and companies and recyclers, and they all gave me the same answer – that the last fibre spinner in Australia, (the) manufacturer shut down about ten years ago. And I kept on getting that same feedback.
S: And so then I started asking, “Well, where do you guys source your fibres?” And then I was getting all sorts of leads of places where to look overseas, and they really were all focussed on Southeast Asia if you wanted the recycled product. So that’s where I went to next.
S: And then, fortunately one of my friends runs a company in the ag industry which does source some recycled products, as well as, actually virgin plastic products for the ag industry here. And he’s not in fibre at all. He’s in silage wrap and things like that, and he helped me.
(Note: silage wrap is the plastic wrap around fermented animal feed stock such as grass)
S: He provided me one of his contacts who he’s met a million times overseas and works with and helps him out as a really good contact in China. And so, he was fantastic. I’ve spoken with him numerous times, and he’s helped to validate things for me. I’ve also got third parties involved, and it’s just been really helpful having that point of contact.
T: So you figured out you couldn’t get the yarn from Australia, and then you found a source of the yarn in China?
S: I originally found the source of the yarn in China, and then consequently after that I found an even better – well, when I say better one – that I was more comfortable with because they spoke English a lot better – in Taiwan. And that’s who I ended up going with, but originally I found and sourced some prototypes from actually a couple of different manufacturers in China.
S: I’ve actually still got those prototype.
T: Well the good thing is that people generally know what a collar is. They probably did have something already on hand that they can reuse in terms of a mould – I’m not sure if they call it a mould like we do in injection plastics?
S: They actually just sent out the end product, or they’ll just send out filament yarn. I’ve got some actual filament yarn because that’s the next step up to take it after that to try to get more of the product made here in Australia.
T: OK. So keep going with that line of thought. The Filament yarn itself?
T: You did your first order with this company in Taiwan?
MINIMUM ORDERS – Oops!
T: And how many units did you order then?
S: So I don’t know anything about manufacturing and poor Sam, who I still talk with a lot – he was the one who is in the manufacturing space for the ag industry who I called way too many times and asked him way too many questions, but he’s been absolutely fantastic. And so I really knew nothing about manufacturing, but I was like, “Right, I want to see if people are interested in this collar, and I want to see if we can get it to market at a reasonable price point and that is to see if this is self-sustaining.”
S: Then we can order in more product and see if we can make this to help show the industry, “Hey, this is a viable alternative.” Little did I know that minimum order quantity was 100 of each size of each SKU. I didn’t know what SKU was. I was googling, “What is S-K-U?”
(NOTE: SKU stands for Stock Keeping Unit = 1 item usually)
T: There are probably people listening that know what that is either, but that resulted in how many total collars?
S: That resulted in 1300 collars and leashes that arrived. Oh my gosh the photos are unbelievable! All these boxes just arrived, and then I just remembered George looking at me (my partner) being like, “Steph what have you done?” And it took up our living room for a very long time.
T: I bet. So that was thirteen hundred in the first order that you’re just is trying to test?
S: Yeah exactly. I was just trying to test. That was where George was like, “This is where you learn, Steph, about small orders to start with to trial products.
T: Yes, that’s OK. Hopefully it wasn’t too expensive, and it looks like you probably got through most of it.
S: Yeah. Which you know has been has quite incredible. Where now 10 months in of actually having product on the market, and it looks like – as of my chat yesterday – that I might be out of product. So, they have told me I really need to reorder.
T: So, is that out of the original thirteen hundred (note: edited to correct number) that you ordered?
T: OK. So that’s the first lot of shipment?
T: And then they’re probably ordering a lot more from you?
COMPANY GROWTH PLANS
T: OK. So, you’re just about to go into the second order and you’ve switched suppliers?
S: So this is where I’m at now in regards to pending on how quickly (we) need a second order, and their commitment in helping me bring the process to Australia more… I’m hoping for the next order to be (with) us importing yarn made from marine upcycled plastic, and then we have a local manufacturer here.
S: George, not my partner George, different George – He’s been amazing. I’ve caught up with him so many times, and he’s been helping navigate with this company overseas that spins marine plastic into yarn – because again we don’t have those facilities here in Australia.
S: What type of exact yarn we actually need to be out of make the product – It’s another language. They talk deniers. It’s very confusing. And so, I would engage George in all those emails conversations with this company overseas to actually work out what specific yarn we want. We got in multiple types from different companies. And George, my manufacturer, was most comfortable and happy with a particular manufacturer. And then that’s where we’re at now. Their minimum order is a thousand kilos of that kind of yarn. So that’s where we’re at now.
S: Do we order that or do we keep proceeding right now until we’ve grown a bit more with our current supplier? So I guess it comes down to now – speed of delivery, costs. And then my heart is in the marine plastics as well. And trying to get things more and more onshore here. And it’s just the commitment of these larger organisations – can we go down that path now or do we wait a little bit?
CERTIFICATION OF RECYCLED MATERIALS
T: How comfortable are you that the plastic you’re actually receiving – that they’re saying is recycled plastic, actually is?
S: So, I’ve had it third party audit which has made me feel a lot more comfortable, and that third party is a U.S. based company that does these kind of audits for very large organisations. And the manufacturer I’m working with actually has and does work with “Ad-di-das.”
T: People in the US, “Ad-di-das” is pronounced Adidas in America.
T: So we’re talking about your Taiwanese supplier at this time. OK. Now if you’re thinking about marine plastic right now for your next order, is that coming from the same company in Taiwan?
S: No. It’s coming from a company that’s actually based in Spain, and their main market that they provide this product to is the fashion industry. So that’s why it’s taken a lot of e-mails from my local manufacturer to talk to them because the fibre we’re after for our collars and leashes is actually quite different to the fibre that goes into textiles.
S: So, it’s actually been a year-long project. And the amount of emails has been unbelievable to then be able to get the right yarn out here for us to be able to make collars and leashes from.
T: Okay. So you’re thinking about another order. How much would the next order be based on current demand?
S: Pretty much because this has been a Start-Up, that I’ve only had a very small tiny investment of my own put in it – it would be the cash that I’ve got to date that I would be reinvesting. And growth-wise, if some of the larger companies who are interested – I don’t see how I’m going to actually manage all of that demand maybe without more investment possibly. So, I need to do some numbers.
T: What did you say the minimum order was for the plastic? The ocean plastic?
S: It’s a thousand kilos. So that would do us.
T: But you’d probably need a warehouse too?
S: Yes, I would need a warehouse. I think, George our local manufacturer, actually has space there as well. He’s able to help out because his son is a vegan, and he’s really interested in this space as well.
T: It’s important to find good partners that believe in your vision.
S: Yes exactly.
T: So you’re lucky that you found one here in Melbourne.
T: So your business is a Start-Up, but you’re obviously looking at the next phase where it has potential to grow significantly depending on whether or not you have these big buyers that come through.
T: Originally you didn’t start this for the money though. So you started because of the impact you wanted to make. How do you see your future growth aligning with that original vision?
START UP FOUNDER TO GROWTH CEO?
S: So this is where I start – actually I’m sure a lot of people I don’t want to hear this, but I start questioning my abilities to be able to take it to the next level because I don’t have a big background in business, and it’s now getting to a point where it requires, I believe, someone who has more experience.
S: That’s where I think we can make the most impact. And I do think we can also move into tole – into white label manufacturing – tole manufacturing, but it’s now getting to a scale where I don’t feel like I’m equipped with the skill set to be able to execute that. I feel like my strength is trialling new things – seeing if it can be grown, and if there’s appetite, and then enabling something to move on to the next level. I’ve never been at this point before where I’ve I begin to feel uncomfortable because we’re talking numbers and scale and size which is not in a vet’s toolset.
T: Yeah. The other thing a lot of founders find themselves in this position.
T: It’s just that not everyone has the self-awareness to be sure that they might want to bring someone else on to manage a company to help it grow. I think in fact a lot of founders stayed too long and into day to day operations to the point that the company is handicapped and unable to continue to grow because they just don’t have the skill set or the knowledge, or maybe they just don’t want to do it.
T: You know there’s a lot of task and businesses that aren’t as fun as the Start-Up phase.
S: Yeah. Exactly.
T: So well done being aware of your own interest and capability. I think you’re also probably underselling yourself because you definitely have started a number of things in the past. And it shows us this continuous interest in doing good for something beyond yourself.
T: So without thinking about yourself at this moment in the position that you’re in as the founder and CEO and everything else – what would you like to see your company do?
S: And honestly and this sounds scary – I would love in five to ten years if the vet industry in Australia in particular, were great stewards of plastic. I would love if the vast majority of products in the vet industry are made from sustainable fibres or recycled fibres.
S: I would love Anipal to help be an instigator of that – be it as a tole manufacturer for these other companies, we grow – which currently as one of the large companies we’ve just signed with said they see:
“Anipal providing the tools for the vet industry to be sustainable.”
S: And that’s what Anipal is heralding in and that’s what I want to see it herald in more. I want the changes to be big. And I want the industry to really change because I do think in five to 10 years if a company is not showing that commitment to improving the environmental sustainability of their organisation and, helping combat climate change and plastic waste, then that company is going to become irrelevant – I really think in the next five to 10 years.
T: It’s interesting you say that because up until recently the practice has been largely independent mom and pop type shops, and we’ve seen a lot of consolidation in recent times with larger companies buying out a lot of these small vet companies to turn it into a more of a corporate environment with shared services as well. So, they do have more influence and power.
T: The bigger they are and greater responsibility as you say as well.
T: Is there anything you want to share with our listeners?
YOU CAN CHANGE THINGS AS THE CONSUMER
S: I think it it actually all starts with –
The buyer, the consumer – they’re the ones that are actually able to demand and create change.
S: And it’s a bit like what’s happening with the movement in schools, and what’s happening today actually (at) two o’clock, and I hope to be there – the Climate Strike.
S: I love it how a U.S. politician, I read yesterday, was stated that, “The Climate Strike that Greta has helped form in this world and the movement, it has resulted in the emergence of a whole new political group worldwide and that political group is schoolkids.”
S: And it really has and that comment that had really stuck with me. It shows the power actually of the people and their decisions. And
When they make a conscious choice to buy a product that is sustainable or recycled, they’re helping change and steer business in the right direction.
T: Now by the time we actually broadcast this podcast, we might actually see what the results were from that 20 September event, and see if there has been any push or influence in various countries because the younger people are making a larger voice collectively. And you too because you’re just at the edge of that in terms of generational.
T: And an interest in the environment.
HOW TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ANIPAL AND STEPH
T: Is there a way that if people wanted to reach out and chat with you or learn more about Anipal – where can they go?
S: To do that, they can easily shoot me an email – jump on the website and you can actually write. There’s a message area that you can write directly to me, or you can shoot me an email at email@example.com.
T: We’ll go ahead and put all those details in the show notes. So people, if you want to reach out and chat with Steph about her views about the vet industry, and where they can clean up their act – even by starting small, in terms of providing products like collars and leads that are made out of recycled plastic rather than virgin plastic – then make sure you check out our website.
T: Steph thanks for joining us today.
T: No, not at all. Thank you so much, Tammy.