U-M students use invasive species to create environmentally friendly hair product for black women

Lillian Augusta, a University of Michigan (U-M) student startup, is set to turn the $2.5 billion black hair care industry on its head.


Founded by science graduate students Jannice Newson and Nana Britwum, the company's slogan is "Hair without harm."


"That means no harm to women who use braiding hair and no harm to the environment," Newson says.


Newson and Britwum are creating biodegradable braiding hair made from phragmites, an invasive plant species. Inspiration came from the duo's own unpleasant experiences with synthetic braiding hair. They both dislike how the plastic-based hair currently on the market is itchy, painful, heavy, and unhealthy. And both are troubled that discarded synthetic braiding hair contributes to pollution in landfills and oceans.


"One day we were talking about how annoying the hair is and how we just put up with it because we want the hairstyles," Newson says. "And then the next day I texted Nana and said we had to do something."


"Now we're not just making a product for me and Jannice to wear for fun," Britwum says. "We're making something that our friends and family can use and that millions of black women across the world can use."


A prototype is currently in development with a soft launch date projected for this fall. The goal is plant-based hair that is much lighter than synthetic hair and doesn't have the chemical coating found on plastic hair.


"It's the chemical coating that causes scalp and skin irritation, and we're eliminating that," Newson says. "But our hair will still have all the qualities that people desire from plastic hair, plus it can be worn for an extended time."


The venture has received positive reception. Lillian Augusta won several cash prizes in the 2020 Michigan Business Challenge, a multi-round business plan competition sponsored by the U-M Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies. Lillian Augusta won first place in the Seigle Impact Track, the Michigan Investment Challenge award, and the OneMagnify Best in Business Award for a total award of $22,000.


"We're really excited and grateful to the Zell Lurie Institute. We thought we'd win something, but never imagined we'd win multiple things," Newson says.


She and Britwum project that they'll put most of the money towards finishing a minimal viable product, conducting focus groups, buying braiding hair, and paying hairstylists.


"We're creating a product for a problem that not just women in the USA are dealing with. This is a worldwide problem," Britwum says. "We hope that eventually we can encourage other brands to follow suit."


Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.


Photo courtesy of Zell Lurie Institute.

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