Entrepreneur Martin Leban from the start-up OneTwoThreeZero comes from a family of hair care manufacturers in Slovenia. It bothered him that shampoo and conditioner, as an example, are almost always packed in plastic bottles. “Take all those small bottles you get in hotels, for instance,” says Leban. He wants to do away with them. But how?

Together with fellow students Renata Alessio, Indira Pambudy and Sarra Elamin from the MIP Politecnico di Milano and the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management, he came up with the initial concept for shampoo ‘marbles’. He further refined this in Slovenia with his two partners Anja Pajntar and Uroš Novak from the start-up OneTwoThreeZero, who are both chemical engineers. They developed the gummy-like balls which melt in your hand as soon as they come into contact with water. You then lather your wet hair with these shampoo marbles, and the soft marble transforms into a frothy foam.

Uroš Novak, Anja Pajntar and Martin Leban          Photo: Lucette Mascini

What are these soft shampoo marbles actually made of? They don’t seem to smell of any specific ingredients.

“They’re made of plant-based materials that you also make regular shampoo with. We tried out different things to give the marble this shape. First we wanted a casing that was a little harder and that had more fluid content on the inside than it has now. But that would’ve made the marbles more fragile, meaning that the shampoo was more likely to leak. This marble is made of a kind of jelly-like substance that dissolves when it is exposed to water. If it falls, it won’t break.”

But how did you come up with the raw material. Just by trying it out in the kitchen at home?

“That’s right. In the end, we developed this gummy-like substance that was produced by leaving the liquid shampoo mass to dry out. After that, it’s pretty easy to make balls out of it. It kind of works the same way as turning meatballs around. Then we roll them through a white powder so that they don’t flake and so that they’ll stay dry.”

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome?

“The hardest part was finding a good raw material. After a lot of trial and error, this is how our product turned out.”

What has been the biggest breakthrough so far?

“That we have been able to try the shampoo out at Camp Koren, an eco camping site in Slovenia. In addition to the standard tents, there are eleven glamping tents there as well, as in prefabricated luxury tents. Guests of those glamping tents get to try out the marbles. They let the owner of the campsite know what they think of them. She has very committed customers who almost always return. So I expect that they will comment on the shampoo. We will also be supplying shampoo to a hotel in Ljubjana that has yet to open. These really are major customers for us who will help raise the profile of our product.”

What can we expect from OneTwoThreeZero in the future?

“We want to develop a machine that can manufacture the shampoo. Right now we’re making the marbles ourselves. But in the end we want them to be produced in a factory. And we want to expand our product line with conditioner, for one thing, and other hair care products. Furthermore, we now only supply products B2B such as the eco campsite and the hotel in Ljubjana. But in future, we also want to make products that consumers can buy in stores. So, then we’ll be entering the retail market.”

OneTwoThreeZero had a wooden box made for the pilot run at the eco campsite in Slovenia.

Will the marbles all be packed in wooden boxes soon?

“That won’t be necessary. We made these for that eco campsite. But it is a practical concept. You can refill it anytime you run out of shampoo. But you could also make other packages that last as long as a box made from steel.”

Where did that white stuff come from that the shampoo marbles are lying on?

“Oh, that’s wool I picked from my own sheep just for this occasion, ha ha. But that doesn’t have to be in there as a standard.”