On February 24th, 2022 the situation at Releaf Paper company turned on its head. The war started. And that morning’s priority was the safety of our families and employees. It took about a week before we could think about how to develop business in wartime reality. Our production vendors suspended their activity, and the communications system was down, but we were more worried about these people rather than our materials left there.
We lacked two days to finalise pilot projects with known cosmetics brands NYX and Kiehl’s and their paper bags were almost done. All plans were ruined, and all clients’ orders were frozen.
We were definitely not prepared for war. It was hard to believe that it could happen, therefore we didn’t have any specific disaster plan. It was too late to evacuate our warehouse and employees and once we ensured that people were safe, we’ve been focused on the future of Releaf Paper.
2022 started very promisingly for the Releaf paper startup. We had a little team of six people, some clients in Ukraine among well-known companies, we were focused on developing business in our country dreaming of building our production line here. Our main production vendors’ site was located in Lutsk, Ukraine.
What we lacked is a few more years to turn it into a billion-dollar business in Ukraine. War interrupted our plan as well as thousands of lives and a slower pace in a peaceful country. Fortunately for Releaf Paper, our key asset is intangible, and we hadn’t managed to build our own unwieldy infrastructure yet.
Theoretically having our existing technology, we can replicate Releaf Paper in any location if there are leaves and demand for paper and packaging. And that’s what we are doing now – we are researching opportunities to enter the markets of France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA, Canada, Japan, and other countries.
So we took matters into our own hands and got down to business - the search for new opportunities. We stopped making and selling products in Ukraine that no one bought because of more important issues at that time. The only way was to sell Releaf bags and paper in Europe. So we managed to launch the online shop in October. Everything was new for the team, we needed to solve production and logistics issues. That was the focus and that project’s wins gave us the energy to go further.
We communicated with dozens of foreign potential investors, partners, and clients every day. The team was growing so we could do more. The Ukrainian startup community was united and that had a multiplication effect. We applied to all possible funds and accelerators, presented our unique technology at Web Summit, Slush, and CES, and sought support.
For the first few months, we only heard "No" answers from investors. Sure, Releaf Paper is not an IT product company and depends on production, logistics, water, and electricity resources. But in the end, fate began to smile at us. In May 2022, Google recognized us as one of the most innovative startups in Ukraine and supported us financially.
In June, we received the Sustainable Packaging Award from Packaging Europe Magazine. After 2 months, the WWF backed us, and after a few months, the EBRD did the same.
In October, PwC featured us in their NetZero Future50 report.
In the middle of the year, we held a series of negotiations with the authorities of several regions of France and signed a memorandum on the construction of our production here.
In December 2022 Releaf Paper was backed by the VC fund belonging to the European Commission that agreed to invest 10,5M Euro into our pilot production line. We found the finances quite quickly as you might think, but it took more than 6 months of hard work under missiles and the everyday pressure of war.
I’m sure that this innovation will conquer the world even faster than we predicted it would before the war started. We really appreciate that all “made in Ukraine” goods or services have started to receive special attention globally because of worldwide solidarity. Lack of resources and growing costs will accelerate the use of alternative sources for paper and packaging. It inspires confidence that very soon Releaf Paper as a company will become an international player and game changer in the packaging market.
Releaf Paper, is a greentech startup founded in 2021 by Ukrainian innovators: biotechnologist Valentin Frechka (21 years) and businessman Oleksandr Sobolenko (37 years).
This article is part of Tech.eu's highlighting of remarkable Ukrainian startups on the one-year anniversary of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Read more ...