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What if You Could Pour Your Own Shampoo From a Tap?

Wonderfil is one of a dozen startups that presented at the Portland Incubator Experiment’s latest demo day, held virtually on Monday.

Do you have any idea what the numbers inside the “chasing arrows” symbols on the bottom of your Gatorade bottles and Tide containers mean?

If not, don’t worry about it. Most of those things aren’t being recycled, anyway, says Mia Eichel, co-founder of Wonderfil, a startup that wants to rid the world of at least some of the plastic that we throw away every day. It’s a noble endeavor. Every minute, Eichel says, the world dumps the equivalent of a city trash truck full of plastic into our oceans.

So why all the little numbers and arrows that suggest recyclability? It’s a greenwashing campaign by the plastics industry, Eichel says. Most plastic can only be recycled at great cost and great effort (sorting, melting, etc.). But if consumers think plastic can be reused, we might not balk at buying it. Big Plastic’s plan worked.

Wonderfil’s solution to the plastic tsunami is to eliminate many single-use plastics by selling shampoo, conditioner, and lotion the way stations sell gas: with a smart pump.

You roll up to a Wonderfil station in a store, put in your credit card, and pull a handle that looks like a beer tap. You don’t need a special container. You could use an old shoe.

“I know some of you Portlanders might not know how gas stations work, which is why we put in tap handles,” Eichel says. “Because Portlanders sure know how to pour beer.”

Wonderfil is one of a dozen startups that presented at the Portland Incubator Experiment’s latest demo day, held virtually on Monday.

PIE founder Rick Turoczy is one of the OGs of Portland’s incubator scene. With his long gray beard, he looks like its high priest. His blog, Silicon Florist, is required reading. He helped start Business for a Better Portland, a chamber of commerce for business leaders who care as much about the welfare of the city as they do about profits.

This month’s demo day featured lots of startups run by women and people of color. All of the companies are looking for investors, and PIE Day was a chance for them to make a pitch. Turoczy said he was impressed by their grit.

“Building a new company amidst a global pandemic introduced a whole new series of challenges and stressors for these founders,” Turoczy said in an email. “This was easily the longest and most stressful cohort we’ve had. I was very impressed.”

The companies were as diverse as their founders. Some make software. One makes houses. Another, called mpathic, seems to be paving the way toward the HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Samantha from the Spike Jonze movie Her.

Mpathic’s founder is Grin Lord, a psychologist who says our email communication is making us angry and a little crazy. Lord pitched her company as Grammerly, but for empathy. If you type an email that is harsh, mpathic suggests kinder language.

As a therapist in the Seattle area, Lord listened to lots of tech workers process tone-deaf emails from bosses. Dealing with mean texts, emails and tweets cost companies $37 billion a year, she says, much of that for legal work, and more from lost customers.

“We can check your texts and emails to prevent those painful moments before you hit send,” Lord says. In venture speak, mpathic “de-risks” communication.

But, to quote Steve Jobs, there’s more. Lord and her team want to go beyond humans and train machines, like Siri. Mpathic “will increase the emotional range and tone of your machines as well as the engagement and profitability of communication apps,” Lord says.

Another entrepeneur, mechanical engineer Eliot Kahn pitched HumanKind Homes. Kahn saw the national housing shortage and asked a simple question: “Why aren’t homes built out of giant Legos?”

HumanKind proposes to do just that, using 3-D printers to fabricate Lego-like bricks out of geopolymer concrete, a climate-friendly compound that the Romans used to build their aqueducts (which are still standing, 2,000 years later).

Once the bricks are stacked, HumanKind sprays them with more magic concrete, making houses that look much like regular ones. But they will be fully electric and net-zero. Best of all, they will cost about $185 a square foot, compared with $332 for a traditional house.

“Low cost doesn’t have to mean low quality,” Kahn says.

Alex MacMillan pitched an equally low-cost fix for relationships. Forget expensive couples therapy and cheesy self-help books. MacMillan hatched Lovely one night at dinner with her husband of 12 years.

At the table next to them sat a young couple, clearly out on their first date. Seeing their excitement, MacMillan asked her husband if he wanted to pretend this was their first date. He was game. She asked him about his career path, even though she had been there for most of it.

“We were instantly giggly,” MacMillan says.

She saw an opportunity and created games that foster the same giddy connection she felt that night. The result was Lovely. After filling out a survey, subscribers get a new activity in the mail every month. Open the box, and maybe a bottle of wine, and start playing.

Lovely is offline and paper-based intentionally. “Online courses and apps connect people to their screens, not to each other,” MacMillan says.

Lovely costs $25 a month.

If Turoczy, PIE’s founder, has it his way, we’ll all be playing games made by Lovely in Lego houses built by HumanKind Homes, and we’ll buy our shampoo from Wonderfil pumps.

Sounds good to me.