Two designers wanted to develop a toothbrush that combined sustainability and the best possible materials. It turned out to be much more difficult than first thought—but they came across biobased Vestamid Terra from Evonik.
In 2013, while on a vacation design students and friends Fabian Ghoshal and Benjamin Beck landed on the topic of sustainable materials and the issues surrounding their use. The discussion sowed the seed for an idea that today has become TIO, a company for sustainable toothbrushes.
“The toothbrush is a really interesting object,“ Beck says today. Used by most people several times a day and disposed of every two to three months, people get through around 400 toothbrushes during their lifetime, which are simply thrown away. “Couldn‘t this be done more sustainably?” Beck and his design student friend Fabian Ghoshal asked themselves.
The eco-toothbrushes on the market used animal hair as bristles, but these split after a while, and became colonised by bacteria. So could bioplastics offer a solution?
Form evolves from function
The two considered a number of designs, including one that was leaf shaped.
“In the end, though, we ended up following Ferdinand Porsche,“ said Beck.
“If you think long enough about the function of a product, the shape follows.”
The TIO toothbrush, therefore, looks much like any other toothbrush.
However, the product incorporates many ideas that are derived directly from its function: “The most hygienically sensitive part of a toothbrush is the head with the bristles,“ explained Beck. This must be changed regularly. The shaft, on the other hand, can be used for much longer - and this is also the case with the TIO models. It’s a realisation that is carried through to the packaging. The TIO toothbrush head is packaged in a sterile sleeve; the rest is not, which saves on material and waste. “The large blister packs seen for many toothbrushes are often marketing-driven,” Beck observed.
The next challenge faced by Beck and Ghoshal was the material. Two coincidences helped the two designers. They made the acquaintance of Volker Dreher, a trained toolmaker and at that time managing director of a mold making company. He had considered using biobased plastics for toothbrushes, but his company rejected the idea: too expensive, no demand. Dreher had the know-how and expertise, Beck and Ghoshal contributed the enthusiasm and start-up will.
“Suddenly we had contacts with material and toothbrush manufacturers,“ Beck said. However, the mold needed to produce the the first batch of toothbrushes would cost in the neighborhood of €40,000 – which the designers did not have.
The second happy coincidence was the German launch of the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, which was looking for flagship projects to promote its crowdfunding business model. There, people were taken with the idea.
“In general, I would say that the sustainability aspect opened quite a few doors for us in our startup,” said Beck. A Kickstarter campaign was created, and the two designers produced a video with the help of a cameraman friend to get customers excited about their idea. In the end, they got their start-up capital together - financed exclusively by end customers.
Today, TIO produces batches in the range of 100,000 units - five times its initial production. Admittedly more expensive than a conventional toothbrush, this is due to the small production quantities and the material used. quantities,“ says Beck.
Many traditional companies won‘t make the leap to biobased plastics, he said, because they still see growing customer interest in sustainable materials as irrelevant: “But you have to give customers the choice.”
For the TIO toothbrush, the two founders looked for different biobased plastics for the head, handle, and bristles, and were soon convinced that Vestamid Terra ws the right choice for the bristles.
In addition to the plastic being derived from castor oil, its properties are impressive. “We‘re talking about long-chain, semi-crystalline polyamides here,“ explained Johannes Krampe, Manager Filaments in the High Performance Polymers Business Unit at Evonik. “The filaments that are made from them are high-performance, for example, in terms of abrasion resistance.“
At the same time, the bristles made from them are flexible and elastic, so they set up again and don‘t get out of shape or break. “It was important for us to offer a solution that is at least equivalent to conventional toothbrushes,“ said Beck.
The biobased material is also suitable for different diameters, i.e., for softer or harder bristles. “Evonik‘s portfolio was really perfect there,“ he added.
Other challenges remained, however. “With every plastic, there is a different shrinkage behavior during the process, and they contract in different ways,“ said Beck.
After all, not only the bristles of their toothbrushes are made of bioplastic, but also the handle and the detachable heads, though not yet from Vestamid Terra. “It was a two-year development effort until everything was a final fit,” he said. “The only thing that was a super fit right from the start was the bristles.“
TIO’s toothbrushes are sold today in selected supermarkets. Meanwhile, improvements will continue to be made: the designers are investigating whether Vestamid Terra can also be used for other components of the toothbrush. Initial trials are underway for the handles and heads as well. A uniform material for the entire brush would bring it one step closer to recyclability, another aspect of the sustainability concept.