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Workingmums.co.uk speaks to Elle McIntosh, co-founder of Twipes, the first fully flushable, biodegradable wet wipes.
Elle McIntosh is not a parent herself, but she has invented something that could make a huge difference to parents [and everyone else] – the world’s first fully flushable, biodegradable wet wipe. Her company Twipes has scooped several prizes and Elle herself has won individual recognition as co-founder.
The idea for her business came from a simple conversation over breakfast with a friend from Cyprus who mentioned that he had blocked the toilet with wet wipes. She told him that wet wipes don’t break down and that the packet says not to flush them.
That conversation remained with her. Elle had long been interested in the environment – as a child she used to go through her mums’ recycling – and she knew she wanted to do something to help others. “I always thought I would find a cure for something. I enjoy solving problems and having a go,” she says.
After completing her degree in biological and biomedical sciences, Elle did a master’s in Material and Chemical Science. She worked on her idea for tackling the wet wipe issue during weekends and evenings, wanting to ensure the product she invented was safe and could be used on all types of skin, including babies’ skin. While she worked on the science, her co-founder who she met at university, focused on the business as he had previous experience as an entrepreneur.
She combined her scientific research with a varied series of other jobs, from working in a restaurant to writing speeches for a member of the House of Lords. In 2016, the business was approached by a major corporate who offered to let Twipes use their labs for free in exchange for ownership of the business idea. Elle says the deal didn’t feel right and she and her partner were worried the corporate would buy the company to close it down and wait to use the technology until the optimum time for them.
The company had applied for lots of competitions and in 2017 won the Mayor of London’s Entrepreneur Award which came with a £20k prize and expert mentoring from staff at City Hall to help get the business idea to market. They bought an office in London and Elle was able to devote herself full time to the business. Since then she and her partner have been on several accelerator programmes and are looking to expand their small team as they seek further investment. Unusually for a tech firm, three of the four-person team are women. Elle says: “When it comes to an environmental product-based business women tend to thrive.”
One of the challenges the company faces is to make the technology a commercially viable prospect. Its competitor analysis showed other firms were saying their cheaper wet wipes were plant-based, suggesting they were potentially good for the planet, even though they weren’t biodegradable since they still contained plastic. “It irritates me so much,” says Elle. “Big companies greenwashing their products and tricking people.”
The pandemic has brought other new challenges. As the cost of living crisis bites, people have been buying fewer subscription boxes which Twipes used to form part of. “Sustainable choices come at a cost,” says Elle. “The wipes need to be at the right price point to be sustainable and people need to understand the value of them.”
To address the value issue, the company is working with the Asda Foundation on a three-month impact pilot study to gather hard data that shows how much better their product is in terms of its overall impact, for instance, in terms of how it affects water treatment and reduces the cost of unblocking pipes. The data from the pilot, in a rural community where antiquated pipes are more common, will be used to campaign for legislation that highlights the dangers of plastic wipes and educates people about the long-term costs. Elle says one potential change could be a plastic tax and bans on wet wipes in key places. The company is, for instance, talking to campsites. It also has plans to expand into other products, such as nappies and feminine hygiene products – what Elle calls “the Holy Trinity of blockages and landfill”.
It’s still early days, but the Twipes team are ambitious and have won several awards already. Besides the Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Elle won the Princess Diana Award in 2019 and was listed in the Forbes 30 under 30 list for 2020. In December she picked up the Social Enterprise Women’s prize at the UK Social Enterprise Awards UK. The same day was a finalist in the everywoman awards, an experience she describes as amazing and highly emotional. “I was on the brink of tears at every moment, thinking about the inspiring women around me and about my own mum,” she says. She made multiple connections at the ceremony that will be useful for her in the future and several women there offered to mentor her.
Elle would like to help change the narrative about women in business and boost the current low investment women-led companies attract. “The stories of women in business are so similar. There is always some adversity to overcome and women often have to take care of other responsibilities alongside their businesses. I wish it wasn’t like that, but that is what makes women so resilient in business,” she says. “There is real power in women.”