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Johnson City couple developing “refillable plastic-free home cleaning products”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of several articles spotlighting the entrepreneurs participating in the inaugural “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” hosted by the Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee Research Park. The entrepreneurs behind each start-up will pitch their companies during a “Demo Day” event the morning of August 31 in Knoxville. The public is invited. To register, click here.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

If you are old enough like me, you should remember the time when the milkman delivered milk in a bottle to your home and retrieved the used bottles to be cleaned and reused. It was recycling and environmental sustainability long before the terms were widely spoken.

Today, a Johnson City couple – Kay Baker and Matt Keasey – are working to revive the tradition of reusing containers with their start-up named Green Llama. Their tagline says a lot: “Ingenious refillable plastic-free home cleaning,” describing a range of nine current products from a three-pack of organic cotton towels to a complete home cleaning kit.

They use a three-step process starting with what they describe as a biodegradable cleaning pod. The first step is to drop the cleaning pod into a 16-ounce Green Llama glass bottle. The second step is to add warm water to the bottle. The third and final step is to make sure the bottle is tightly sealed before being shaken. After the concentrated cleaning powder has dissolved into the water, it is ready to use

“It’s a closed-loop system,” Keasey says, explaining that customers reorder cleaning pods. “The bottle gets reused. Nothing goes to the landfill. The only plastic component is the trigger spray, which is recyclable.” Customers can order the products online or at 26 retailers, mostly natural food stores and refilleries, in 15 states.

The Founders have widely different backgrounds. Baker, an Occupational Therapist, hails from Baton Rouge, while Keasey, a Neuroscientist, came from the Midlands region of England. They recently captured first place and $10,000 in “The Pitch,” a competition organized by FoundersForge.

So, how did they settle on launching Green Llama?

It started early in the COVID-19 pandemic when there was enhanced interest in cleaning supplies. In Baker’s case, the issue rekindled her thinking about ways to further reduce the couple’s single-use plastic waste and their carbon footprint.

“Matt, I haven’t found an all-purpose cleaner that’s plastic-free or waste-free, something I can refill,” Baker (pictured here) said to her husband as related in a recent article in the Johnson City Press. Rather than trying to find a solution elsewhere, Keasey responded: “That’s a great idea. Let’s do it.”

They launched what they call the “Llama Lab” in what was the garage at their home and began developing products. Baker and Keasey have bootstrapped the start-up along with some investment from “friends and family,” so winning the $10,000 pitch competition really helped.

When they heard about the new “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” operated by the Spark Innovation Center at the University of Tennessee (UT) Research Park, they saw it as an opportunity to be involved with really bright people.

“Trying to take a product to market when you don’t have those skills is a challenge,” Keasey said, with Baker adding, “We are very aware of our gaps.”

As a teenager, Keasey’s first job was helping the local milkman deliver and collect milk bottles. This early experience formed a foundation and the model for Green Llama’s sustainability.

The accelerator is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, City of Knoxville, Launch Tennessee, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and UT Research Foundation, and is further supported by the Energy Mentor Network, a program managed by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council. It is also a partner in the Heartland Climate Tech Partnership, a collaboration of start-up programs across the Greater Midwest Region including Evergreen Climate Innovations and mHUB, both based in Chicago, and Centrepolis Accelerator which is based in Detroit.

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