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Nyoka’s bio-based glow sticks light a path away from toxic chemicals

Nyoka’s bio-based glow sticks light a path away from toxic chemicals

Technology Sector Clean Tech and Environmental Technology Funding Entrepreneurship

The tech can replace the billions of glow sticks used annually in military, medical, safety, fishing, live events, and a host of other industries.

For Paige Whitehead, founder and CEO of Nyoka, it all started with a magical evening on a remote British Columbia island. That adventure led to a trip around the world, an email from NASA, and a deep dive into the world of tech startups, all towards the birth of a climate-friendly solution to night lighting using nature’s light bulbs: bioluminescence.

Whitehead remembers her first time seeing bioluminescence vividly. “We were camping on the beach on Savary Island,” she tells Victoria Tech Journal. “Being a very warm night we went swimming. As we swam, everything we touched lit up around us. It was one of the inspirations for me to choose microbiology as my field.”

Whitehead’s teenage Avatar moment didn't just inspire her to pursue an academic direction – it gave her a focus for her future work. Bioluminescence’s natural light comes from plants and animals, such as jellyfish, algae, and mushrooms, and is known for being efficient and non-toxic. According to Whitehead, there was a real tipping point for her in 2016. “I attended the Shambhala music festival for the first time,” she recalls, “and saw all these chemical glow sticks littering the farm grounds. A question came to mind. Could I harness the power of bioluminescence to replace the toxic chemical reaction used to make this type of light?”

As she researched more, the magnitude of the issue shocked her. Turns out chemiluminescence is incredibly toxic and used for a huge range of industries – from military, medical, and safety, to big events and concerts.

But there was another significant personal experience driving Nyoka to become reality. Whitehead has suffered from severe migraine headaches since she was eight years old. As a young adult it became much worse, and she was forced to take almost two years off from university. She recalls the feeling. “My life as I dreamed it seemed to be over,” she says. “I didn’t know if I could ever return to school, let alone have a positive impact on the world. It was the darkest time of my life.”

Instead of giving up, she took advantage of the downtime to work on her idea to replace those nasty glow sticks. “I needed something to focus on and it ended up being such a silver lining. For the first time I felt like I had a clear purpose and regained some hope for the future. Of course, turning off the lights to work on beautiful things that glow was very appealing for a migraine sufferer!”

Today, Nyoka has drawn attention from a remarkable group of potential customers, partners, and investors, including a surprise email from NASA. “They contacted me through the Nyoka website,” Whitehead says. “Turns out they were keen to find non-toxic alternatives for quality-control tools and devices. Our formula for bioluminescence fit the bill.”

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