Jeremy Lang life’s path has revolved around one fateful day on a prairie highway.
That day, when he was a young boy, Lang’s family’s white Buick floated down Highway 11, like it had so many times before. On this particular day, as it peaked over the Qu’Appelle Valley, Lang could see fire consuming the prairie sky. The smell of smoke and ash lingered in the air.
When he asked his father the cause of the apocalyptic scene, his father explained it was farmer’s burning flax straw. He continued that once oilseed was stripped, farmers had no use for the flax straw. They had to burn it because flax straw is so strong, it would get caught in their equipment.
The Buick wheels that spun on the well-driven asphalt emulated the wheels now spinning in Lang’s head.
“If it’s so strong, it must be good for something,” he offered.
“Well, maybe when you get older you can think of something,” his father replied.
Fast forward 30 years, and that little boy has indeed thought of something.
Today, Lang is the founder of Pela, a multi-million dollar company creating biodegradable cases for smartphones made with, you guessed it, the same flax byproduct he learned about sitting in that Buick all those years ago.
IT JUST SEEMED RIDICULOUS
Lang credits a USask soil microbiology class for kick starting his interest in sustainability. He always had an interest in bio-diversity and felt better suited for a life outside an office, so a bachelor’s degree in agriculture was a genuine fit.
After receiving his USask degree, Lang worked as an environmental consultant throughout Western Canada for many years, but the temptation to start his own business was always a lingering aspiration.
After nearly 20 years as a consultant, he started Open Mind Developments, with the idea to take a different approach to solving economic problems in environmentally-friendly ways.
“We wanted to look at things with an open mind and make things better,” said Lang.
Then, just like that fateful day on that Saskatchewan highway, a trip to Hawaii with his family reignited his sense of wonder, once again. Everywhere they turned, little pieces of plastic were discarded and washed up on the beach from the ocean. When he got back from his vacation, Lang got to researching.
“Every piece of plastic that’s ever been made still exists today, unless it’s incinerated,” noted Lang. “Actually, less than five per cent of all plastic actually gets recycled and it just builds and builds. It’s all very linear and wasteful progression.”
He wanted to find a solution. Lang started looking into how he could utilize biopolymers to make consumer products more sustainable. He found that the problem with biopolymers were they were very brittle, which limited their applications to items like utensils. That’s when the cliché light bulb went off in his head and he was brought back to that crimson sky and the flax straw.
“I thought, ‘if I could combine brittle biopolymers with strong flax straw materials, maybe I can make a biodegradable material that could be used in more products to make consumer products more sustainable,’” said Lang.
He took his idea back to USask, where he tested his first formulations with the help of the college of engineering. The idea also sparked government funding, which helped Lang further develop his prototype.
And thus, Flaxstic™ was born. A blend of plant-based biopolymer mixed with flax shive; a strong material that is environmentally-friendly and biodegradable.
With his product now firmly under his hat, he just needed an outlet. At the time, iPhone 4s were the must have items and were starting to become a permanent fixture in people’s palms. Lang wasn’t interested in the technology behind Steve Job’s legacy, rather the plastic casing that protected people’s screens.
“The average person keeps their phone for two years, but the case to protect it will last for hundreds or thousands of years… it just seemed ridiculous,” he said.
Using Flaxstic™ to create phone covers seemed like the next logical step, so he got to work. It started as a side project and snowballed from there. In 2011 the very first Pela case was launch and in 2015 Lang realized the viability of his creation, so took a leap and made steps to expand the team and operations.
Today, Pela is ranked Canada’s ninth fastest growing companies. Based out of Kelowna, they’ve sold more than 1,000,000 phone cases, expanded into more consumer products, have more than 60 team members, eliminated over 300,000 pounds of waste from landfill, and have donate over $400,000 to nonprofit organizations.
“It’s mind-blowing really when you think of it, just three years ago we were still working out of our basement,” Lang laughs.
BEING THE CHANGE
What really drives Lang is the prospect of a better world for future generations.
He notes that people are becoming more conscious about their purchases and making more sustainable decisions when it comes to consumerism.
“When consumers choose a sustainable product over a non-sustainable product the market responds and business can then become a force for good,” Lang notes.
Pela partners with several nonprofits organizations and donates roughly one per cent of every sale to preservation initiatives, like ocean cleanups.
The Responsibility Economy is a term Lang and his team use often. The goal is to take full responsibility of their product and instead of continuing the linear cycle of plastics, move to a more cyclical, sustainable approach.
The creatively designed and colourful phone cases are just the beginning for Lang and the Pela team. They have expanded into eyewear, personal care products, pet products and are continually looking for new ways to create a waste free future.
Educating, inspiring and helping lead the shift toward a more sustainable future. That’s the goal, says Lang, and he’s happy to be along for the ride.
As a student sitting in a USask soil microbiology lecture, Lang would have never dreamed of creating the life for himself that he has, but ultimately it was his time on campus that sprouted his passion for change. He also notes that being a part of the USask alumni family humbling, and he is inspired by other entrepreneurs from USask that have gone before him.
“Those key classes and concepts helped to spark ideas, and the quiet confidence and achievements of amazing USask alumni around the world have inspired me as an entrepreneur,” said Lang.
The little things can add up to make a big impact, he says, and by working as a team and community we can all make a big difference together.
“When I was a boy, I remember my dad picking up garbage from our campsite and from other peoples’ campsites as well. I asked him why he was picking up their garbage too and he said ‘if I don’t pick it up, who will?’
“That’s the type of mindset we take at Pela. If we don’t try to make things more sustainable, who will? Someone’s got to do it,” said Lang. “We’re trying to create a waste-free future. We’re not perfect, but we believe in better, and the power of a team, and that is really what drives us.”