IYA graduate students create sustainable box

Four graduate students from the Iovine and Young Academy aim to replace single-use boxes made of cardboard with a zero-waste alternative made from post-consumer plastic. (Tate Schmergel | Daily Trojan)

Four Iovine and Young Academy students are shaking up the standards of e-commerce by  creating a smart, sustainable, zero-waste alternative to single-use cardboard boxes. Hundreds of billions of boxes are manufactured and thrown away each year, according to a 2014 ABB report.

Del Necessary, Steven Schwartz, Donielle Sullivan and Jim Welty, graduate students in IYA’s integrated design, business and technology master’s program, have founded Infinity Boxx, an early-stage startup aiming to tackle the increasing package waste in e-commerce through their smart, reusable and recyclable boxes all managed within a sustainable, closed loop supply chain that creates negligible waste by controlling each box’s life cycle and refurbishment themselves.

The Infinity Boxx is made from post-consumer plastic, lasts for over 100 uses and collects data on temperature, pressure and location changes. The startup is currently in its prototype stages but, once accessible, will allow customers to use features like a doorstep theft detection in an app.

If a customer orders an expensive case of wine in an Infinity Boxx, they’ll be able to track temperature changes throughout the entire journey. So will the carriers, who can ensure the wines aren’t heat damaged. Because of its adjustable design, the Infinity Boxx will be able to ship anything from a single pencil to that case of wine, accommodating nearly any sized e-commerce purchase.

The co-founders are pitching and prototyping the product to address environmental waste and customers’ lack of real-time temperature, pressure and location information on their purchases. Their journey began after Sullivan pitched the idea for a reusable box to her Integrative Project Lab class in Spring 2019.

“Single-use boxes … are circulating and catastrophically leaving a billion trees of waste and 8 million tons of plastic every year,” Sullivan said. “This is [an] unprecedented volume of objects moving that we’ve now created a solution [for].” 

Sullivan continued to speak on the challenge of tackling large amounts of waste, further complicated by different government’s regulations, available technologies and long-established business practices. 

The Infinity Boxx startup plans to cut down on cardboard box waste and integrate data-transmitting technology into the product. (Tate Schmergel | Daily Trojan)

“When we hesitate or feel overwhelmed, it’s because it really is such a gargantuan challenge and it’s in such a complex ecosystem that involves so many regulations, so many moving parts and so many different technology solutions and physical design solutions,” Sullivan said.

Necessary, who designs the boxes, said he used the technology skills he accrued in his IYA classes to turn the idea into reality.

“When I saw what we could do with a little $35 Arduino computer … It was one thing to build the physical box, which I’ve long felt confident that we can do that,” Necessary said. “It’s seeing the technology work, and networked objects allowed us to do that.” 

While considering different designs, the team kept its goals simple: Replace single-use cardboard, introduce fresh ideas to the packaging industry, reduce costs for production and customers and eliminate tape, which damages packaging. 

Sullivan said it was Welty’s idea to reframe the perspective of the packaging business from “packaging as an object” to “packaging as a service.”

“When we reframed in that perspective, it really has [a job to deliver] the items within it safely without damage and with good information exchange to a destination,” Sullivan said. “You begin to explore the possibilities that are at stake when you bring technology into these containers.”

The team members credited IYA classes with teaching them to design products with consumers in mind. They also aim to control the entire life cycle of their boxes by creating their own refurbishment centers to recycle used boxes into new ones.

Jay Clewis, an IYA professor who has taught the Infinity Boxx founders in two classes, Opportunities and Uncertainties Integrative Project Lab and Capstone Final Project said he has seen the team members grow throughout the development process of the company.

“They’re really taking the time to explore and talk to the right people to figure out what are the right materials, what are the right sizes, what are the right aspects of this thing?” Clewis said. “You don’t just add features and functionality for the sake of it. They’re really trying to understand the problem pattern.”

In addition to identifying and proposing an innovative solution to the growing challenge of sustainability in e-commerce, the cause of the startup’s current success has been its team dynamic and ability to communicate their narrative to peers, mentors, and potential investors, the Infinity Boxx co-founders said.

“Infinity Boxx has managed to get over a number of hurdles to become a company that has a chance,” said Steve Barth, an IYA assistant professor of entrepreneurship who is teaching the Infinity Boxx founders’ capstone class. “They’re a great team. When you have an idea that’s traveling all the way through the program … you really see how the idea develops.” 

The founders said they hope Infinity Boxx will revolutionize the global economy the same way shipping containers did: by creating a new standard by which goods can be transported across land, sea and air internationally, but with real-time data every step of the journey.

Sullivan said tackling the amount of waste has always been scrutinized in modern society, so the cohort hopes the Infinity Boxx can mitigate sustainability issues and provide helpful services to its customers.

“We think we can get through it, we can see the path, we know the form and we know what we want it to do,” Necessary said. “We’re actively trying to wrap our head around all of that, and we’re talking to as many people as we can, and it’s enlightening.”