Eco-friendly pens startup collaborating with students on global distribution

William Tjo was always an environmentally conscious student while studying at the University of Sydney. But it wasn’t until co-founding Paper Pens Co., a startup that produces eco-friendly gel pens, that he was able to put his passion into practice.

This semester, William returned to the University of Sydney Business School to share his insights with the next generation of entrepreneurs and seek their help to expand their business beyond the 32 countries where their current customers and corporate clients come from.

William worked with Dr Maria Rumyantseva from the Business School’s Discipline of Strategy, Innovation & Entrepreneurship to deliver a unique learning experience for students in the Master of Commerce.

A unique (and online) learning experience

Almost 200 postgraduate students from the Business School, Faculty of Science, Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning and other parts of the University, took part in the project with Paper Pens Co, which was integrated in the Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship unit of study.

Students brought a combination of diverse professional backgrounds and industry experiences to the table to form multidisciplinary teams.

“The online learning set-up provided by the Business School offered a range of interactive tools and spaces that became instrumental in connecting teams spread across several continents and time zones,” Dr Rumyantseva says.

“Lecturing to a cohort of students knowing that some have just started their day while others are about to finish theirs made me realise once again how diverse yet wonderfully complementary our students and their backgrounds are.”

William Tjo and Marybeth Dela Cruz, co-founders of Paper Pens Co., presenting at the Sydney Genesis final pitch night.

The teams further benefited from the diverse international backgrounds of participants and their first-hand knowledge of markets that were investigated as part of the collaboration. Students were able to choose the geographical focus of their projects, which included Australia, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, US and China.

In an intense learning environment, with weekly coaching and feedback sessions, students developed analytically rigorous and feasible international expansion strategies for Paper Pens Co. While extensive research to develop an intricate understanding of local markets was needed, they were supported by an experienced teaching team.

“What I liked most about the course was how tailored the advice we received was. It was clear that the teams did their research on what would bring Paper Pens Co. the most value and added their own perspective into it,” William says.

Graduate returns to (online) campus

The idea for Paper Pens Co. was sparked in 2018, when William was completing his double degree in Law and Commerce at the University of Sydney.

After a lot of research into almost 50 manufacturers, I started contacting them to ask whether they could create pens made of paper.

William Tjo

“I came up with the idea of the pen when I received one as a gift in 2015. It was a pen covered with paper, although it was quite flimsy and not well designed,” William explains.

“After a lot of research into almost 50 manufacturers, I started contacting them to ask whether they could create pens made of paper. To the ones that replied, I submitted a rough design derived from the pen gift, and after photo-shopping, refined the design to what it is today.”

Since launching in late 2019, Paper Pens Co. has expanded its distribution to over 32 countries and signed deals with large organisations and companies including the CSIRO and Shopify Inc.

Its current design uses up to 70 percent less plastic than traditional biros, saving roughly 4.7g of plastic from each pen.

William is also another successful alumnus of the University’s Genesis startup accelerator program, chosen to participate in the intensive masterclasses and training offered by industry experts and academics.

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