About two years ago, Lilian Thibault was working in sales and digital marketing and longed to do something more meaningful with his life.
With an idea in mind, he went to his friends—designer Frederic Ly and tech wiz Nghia Nguyen Dai--and asked them to help create Awake, a Paris-based brand that aims to raise awareness about ocean plastic pollution and sustainability. Its first product is a solar-powered watch made from recycled plastic and stainless steel.
“This is quite the opposite of what I was doing before,” says Thibault, Awake co-founder. “Sometimes in digital marketing you’re pushing people to buy things they don’t need. This gave me motivation to start something that was more important to me.”
Dai was running online shops when Thibault, a friend of 10 years, asked him to join the venture.
“It sounded very exciting and challenging,” he says. “It’s a new challenge for me, so I accepted immediately. After so many years in the tech industry, the idea of building a brand based on our personal values was very exciting.”
Thibault says no single company can handle the thousands of tons of plastics dumped in the oceans every day, but the idea is to create a design that makes people think.
With a goal to design the world’s most sustainable watch, Thibault wanted to source plastic directly from the ocean. One of the biggest challenges was finding a supplier, he says.
His idea was to purchase plastic from an ecobank, which provides the ability for third world countries to set up and operate a “store,” in which plastic waste is currency. Plastic collected through the bank is recycled and sold to global companies that make sustainable products, such as Adidas and Nike.
“We were disappointed because it was something we could not afford,” Thibault says of the transporting costs.
A solution came through an Australia-based company, which collects plastic bottles from Southeast Asia and Japan, he says. The company turns the plastic into pellets and then into nylon yard, which is what the watch strap is made of.
Other features include a luminescent gauge made from recycled stainless steel. Thibault says he chose to design a solar-powered watch to avoid the use of batteries, which are typically swapped out every 2 to 3 years. Using solar power is 30 times more expensive, he says, but it lasts.
“We didn’t want to make any compromise on that,” Thibault says. “It’s the best sustainable solution to reduce the impact on the planet.”
Before launching a crowdfunding campaign, Awake co-founders spent weeks talking to investors and sharing their vision, story and project with people.
“We wanted to show people what we were doing,” Thibault says. The positive feedback “made us feel we were doing the right thing.”
Awake was fully funded within an hour of launching on Kickstarter. More than 800 backers pledged $307,080 to support the project. Since July, 1,200 people preordered the watch online at a $249 discounted price. Thibault says the preorders helped with startup costs and to know which designs were popular.
“I think our biggest pool of customers are people who love the oceans. People who are in and around the water every day,” Dai says. “We live in Paris, so we’re aware of the problem, but we are not in contact with the problem every day. We want what we’re doing to inspire people, and to connect them with nature.”
For years, Thibault, who was born and raised in Paris, has felt a personal connection to sustainability. He says it started with avoiding the use of single plastics in his personal life and then having conversations about sustainability with family and friends.
In the future, Thibault wants Awake to be involved in every step of the process, from collecting plastics from the oceans to designing finished products. He says Awake is working with Trash Hero, an action-based organization with chapters that organize trash cleanups around the world.
“We don’t just want to be a watch company,” he says. “We want to create products inspired by the same philosophy.”