This year pioneering packaging company Woolcool is celebrating a decade at the forefront of innovative packaging solutions, offering efficiency and cost-effectiveness in a sustainable and eco-friendly way. Here, in the second of four blogs, we reveal how the company’s commitment to research and development drove innovation and opened up new opportunities.
Woolcool was beginning to gain momentum. After being founded in 2009, the packaging company had been recognised with numerous accolades and had grown rapidly, as Angela Morris’s ‘eureka’ moment was transformed into an exciting and innovative company.
That flash of inspiration had come in 2002, when the experienced packaging consultant had been helping the National Trust’s farmers find a way to deliver their produce fresh to market. 100% Natural Sheep’s wool, Angela realised, was the perfect material to insulate food products in temperature-controlled thermal packaging – a ‘super fibre’ developed through millions of years of evolution in nature’s own laboratory to stop the transfer of heat and maintain temperature.
What’s more, as an abundant by-product of sheep it was sustainable, as well as being compostable, bio-degradable, recyclable and re-usable. Angela believed she had hit upon a superior alternative to the polystyrene packaging insulation that was clogging up landfill sites across the globe.
She was right: in the last year alone, Woolcool has prevented the equivalent of 75 Olympic sized swimming pools full of polystyrene from going to landfill.
From that ‘eureka’ moment, Angela began six years of development: testing, refining and developing what was to become Woolcool: creating a 100% pure wool liner now scientifically proven to be a superior alternative to conventional, man-made cool packaging.
By 2009 she was ready – the Wool Packaging Company opened for business and the Woolcool brand was born.
In Woolcool’s first two years of operation their products quickly attracted the attention of some of the UK’s best-known food companies, including organic pioneers Abel & Cole and high-end retailer Fortnum & Mason. Woolcool’s development of insulated box liners for shipping food was attracting respected clients. The innovative, ecologically-friendly designs of their thermal packaging solutions won a clutch of industry awards.
The packaging company’s commitment to innovation and research lay behind its success. An ethos that is still at the heart of the company today. Even as it was attracting big names in the food industry, Woolcool was setting its sights on another sector that could benefit hugely from the properties of natural wool insulation.
Woolcool’s research and development efforts were redirected to the pharma market, with the ambition of creating an environmentally-responsible thermal packaging solution that would meet the exacting standards of the pharmaceutical industry.
It is absolutely critical that many medicines and vaccines are maintained within tight temperature ranges of 2°C to 8°C and 15°C to 25°C, during complex supply chains and significant variations of climates. As Woolcool’s research would prove, the insulation properties of natural wool, whether in an insulated envelope, thermal bag or a more robust insulated box, would prove to be the ideal solution for this scientific challenge.
Crucial to the success of Angela’s original idea was Woolcool’s ongoing commitment to provide data and evidence to their customers, unique to each company’s requirements, to prove the superiority of natural wool as an option in their temperature-controlled packaging. The central concept was ‘created by nature, driven by science’.
By 2011, this dedication to research was to get national recognition and a significant injection of investment, as well as the endorsement of the UK Government. Woolcool applied for and won funding support from Innovate UK, the Government-funded agency tasked with driving technological advances.
This was to be the first of three rounds of Government funding into Woolcool’s research and development, which has seen more than £1million invested in scientific work.
In 2012, with a growing range of products, a loyal base of clients, ongoing research work and ambitions to expand into exciting new markets, it was time for the innovative packaging company to step out into the digital world.
The launch of a new Wool Packaging Company website gave the company global reach, and the opportunity to showcase their innovative products, from insulated box liners for shipping food to complete packages including box and insulation.
It also helped spread the word about the ecologically-minded ethos of Woolcool and dispel myths associated with sustainable products. Angela’s vision was pioneering, she was an early champion of natural, or at the very least sustainable, solutions to the growing environmental waste problem, this almost 20 years before that eye-opening Blue Planet episode. Woolcool’s origins lay in Angela’s belief in the urgent global issue of the impact of non-sustainable packaging waste. This ethos led Angela to develop the first thermal packaging that is environmentally and socially responsible yet sustainable and economically effective.
However, there was a common misconception that anything to do with protecting the environment meant higher cost and rising prices for the consumer. Woolcool’s work showed that genuinely sustainable – and cost-effective – alternatives did exist in the shape of natural materials.
The launch of its first website allowed Woolcool to deliver this message to a global audience. As a business committed to both scientific innovation and a sustainable ethos, Woolcool was taking a position at the forefront of a growing movement to make commerce more ecologically responsible.
This commitment was recognised in 2012, when the packaging company was a finalist in the BCE Environmental Leadership Awards, eventually being Highly Commended by the judges for their pioneering approach to green issues.
Leadership in the growing field of environmentally-friendly thermal packaging with the promotion of sustainability and nature at its heart, would become a key part of Woolcool’s corporate identity – Angela would go on to launch and chair the Natural Materials Association (NMA), one of the communities within The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3), a major UK engineering institution.
They were making waves within the packaging community too, picking up a UK Gold Packaging Award at the 2012 Starpack awards.
But behind the scenes, the growth and success of Woolcool was being driven by a continued commitment to research, including collaborations with academics and leading universities.
The first such partnership was with Leeds University, in a project which studied the various manufacturing techniques for the production of Woolcool insulation. Further research with Bangor University looked closely at the insulation properties of wool. By analysing how wool fibres work at a microscopic level, Woolcool was building an impressive bedrock of scientific data that substantiated the product’s superior performance.
While their natural product offered all the benefits of a sustainable solution, it had real scientific substance behind it. From thermal bags to envelopes to insulated box liners for shipping food, Woolcool was collecting evidence to show wool outperformed the plastic-based insulators mankind had come to rely on. Science confirmed the concept: natural is best.
Next, academics and scientists at Cambridge University worked with Woolcool on a pharmaceutical product development project backed by the Government’s Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) which further explored the thermal properties of wool.
Today, working with academia remains a central plank of Woolcool’s research and development strategy. This commitment not only allows Woolcool to innovate within their own product ranges, it also helps expand the range of knowledge in the important field of sustainable materials.
As Woolcool’s knowledge and product range expanded, so did its horizons. 2012 saw the first shipments of Woolcool dispatched to Europe. The packaging company’s products are now used all over the world.
The same year saw a huge milestone reached for Woolcool, that would see an exciting new global market open up and prove the value of the company’s commitment to scientific research.
As Birmingham in the UK played host to the World Veterinary Congress, Woolcool proudly revealed the identity of its first pharmaceutical client. Henry Schein Inc., a worldwide distributor of veterinary, medical and dental supplies including vaccines, pharmaceutical products, financial services and equipment, announced that they were partnering with Woolcool, using bespoke insulated thermal packaging tailored to their needs for the UK Veterinary sector.
A second pharma customer, Dental Directory – the UK’s largest, British-owned full-service dental dealer – soon signed up too.
They would be the first of dozens of pharmaceutical and biotech businesses to choose Woolcool. Today, the firm has a broad and expanding range of products aimed specifically at the pharma market, from a simple thermal bag for small deliveries of medicines such as insulin to high-performance packaging solutions designed to transport life-saving vaccines.
By 2013, Woolcool was established as a world leader in sustainable thermal packaging, with a growing client base using their insulated box liners for shipping food, making headlines in the world of pharma and occupying the forefront of scientific research that was expanding the field of knowledge in sustainable materials.
All of this has sprung from a single ‘eureka’ moment, subsequently driven by a commitment to investment, research and development. But that investment was only just starting.
In 2013 Woolcool invested in their first Climatic Chamber, a cutting-edge piece of equipment that would allow constant in-house testing of their products, to fine-tune their performance and provide detailed, evidence-based data to customers.
It was the latest commitment to research that allowed analysis on two fronts – alongside the many collaborations with Government agencies and academics in universities, Woolcool would now carry out in-depth research in-house, gathering constant proof of the superiority of natural materials.