Paige Whitehead was 13 years old when she saw bioluminescence for the first time, during a midnight dip in the Salish Sea. “She was just awestruck,” recalls Whitehead’s mother, Cheryl Taylor. “That experience stuck with her.”
Years later, while majoring in microbiology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria, Whitehead attended music festivals during her summer breaks. As a volunteer on Shambhala Music Festival’s environmental crew, she was shocked by the massive number of glow sticks she picked up.
Her dismay grew after she researched those lovely-looking little lights and learned how terrible they are for the planet. The production of light via a chemical reaction (chemiluminescence) creates extremely carcinogenic waste products. In fact, the byproducts of the reaction are similar to those found in the now-illegal chemical weapon Agent Orange.
Even worse, creating chemiluminescence is a mega-industry that generates over 1.5 million tonnes of highly toxic waste every year. Glow sticks are just part of it—there are military, biomedical, and many other uses for the light it creates, and much of it is housed in single-use plastics.
Whitehead started wondering whether she could use bioluminescence to develop a similar—but entirely non-toxic and environmentally friendly—light. At the outset, a few university professors weren’t very encouraging, says Taylor. “Everyone thought it all seemed a bit ‘out there.’”
But Whitehead took time off school, connected with international experts, and volunteered at a lab in Puerto Rico where they study bioluminescence. Eventually her perseverance yielded a successful glow stick prototype, powered by bioluminescence.
She ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to start production, and Nyoka Design Labs was born (the word “Nyoka” means “rebirth”).
To get the bioluminescence to work for hours, Whitehead knew it would take years and intense R&D. So during COVID, when accessing a lab space and raising funding were not possible (and after many requests from customers who asked if her bioluminescent product was rechargeable—it’s not), Whitehead partnered with Courtenay-based CORE Landscape Products to bring her next idea to life. She called it the LUMI.
CORE were early adopters of another kind of light: photoluminescence. Their innovative aggregate materials illuminate yards and pathways without electricity, recharging over and over again with exposure to sunlight.
LUMI glow bracelets use CORE’s industrial-strength photoluminescent material, embedded in silicone for a lasting glow. The bracelets are extremely durable (10 years plus) and rechargeable by sunlight, lightbulb, flashlight, or UV light. Since 20 per cent of each bracelet sale contributes to Nyoka’s continued research and development, the LUMIs are helping Whitehead fund her most ambitious goal yet.
In essence, she’s aiming to completely disrupt the chemiluminescence industry.
The Nyoka lab team at UBC, now 14 employees strong, is focused on engineering bioluminescent proteins to create light that’s brighter, longer lasting, and—most important of all—earth-safe. They’ve received significant funding from many sources to support their research and pilot projects.
Whitehead is really excited about two products they’re currently working on. The BioLure could be a replacement for the billions of toxic chemiluminescent fishing lures and dive lights used every year worldwide. These are generally lost after use, leaving behind poisonous substances in the water. While Nyoka’s BioLures are still single use, they are non-toxic and marine biodegradable, making them a much safer alternative.
Nyoka is also exploring a bioluminescent sea dye marker for search and rescue (SAR) operations. It will be used to light up a pool of water around someone lost at sea—it can be activated by a person after they’ve gone into the water to show their location with a large and long-lasting visual signal.
The fun and functional LUMI bracelet remains a part of Nyoka’s product line and will continue to be produced at the MakeItZone in Courtenay by other members of Whitehead’s family, including her mom.
“When I get overwhelmed by all the issues facing our planet,” says Taylor, “I talk to Paige for a while, and my faith in the next generation kicks in and restores my hope in our collective future. There are so many people doing great things to solve huge problems. I’m proud that Paige is one of them.”