BioInnovation Institute recently closed a call for the PreSeed program for start-ups and academic projects in therapeutics, health tech and bio-industrials. The accepted teams will be announced in September 2020.
Earlier this year, three teams were granted DKK 3.5M in the program through Novo Seeds to pursue their project in collaboration with BioInnovation Institute.
One of them is a project from Aarhus University whom, in collaboration with Aalborg University and the company Cellugy, has developed a water-based suspension that can be used to replace fossil-based polyethylene, which is the most common plastic use today.
The scientific team is led by Associate Professor Michael Etzerodtz, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Aarhus University, Associate Professor Lars Haastrup Pedersen from Aalborg University and Dr. Isabel Alvarez-Martos, CEO & founder of Cellugy. Their product EcoFLEXY has received 13 awards, including winner of the EIT Food Innovation Prize in the EU’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program and runner-up in the National Geographic and Sky Ocean Ventures Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge.
We asked Isabel Alvarez-Martos a few questions about the team’s work.
In which area are you focusing on finding new solutions?
99 percent of plastics are made from fossil sources. Packaging is an especially troubling area as 30 percent of it is never recycled. Moreover, multi-material packaging like milk and juice cartons where paperboard and plastic are joined, are impossible to recycle due to the difficulty in separating the different components. We are trying to replace the plastic in these types of packaging with our product EcoFLEXY which is a water-based suspension. EcoFLEXY is made from nanocellulose which effectively turns the multi-material packaging coated with EcoFLEXY into a mono-material. This means it will be recyclable and even if it is leaked into nature it disappears within four weeks, due to its biodegradability.
How do you produce EcoFLEXY?
We exploit a mixture of microorganisms to carry out the fermentation of sugar and produce nanocellulose. Nanocellulose is made of nanofibers and exhibits the same valuable properties of cellulose: biodegradable, bio-based, sustainable, highly recyclable, and easily modifiable chemically. However, nanocellulose has greater strength and barrier properties than pure cellulose. It also has high stability in water and is free from processing contaminants such as lignin, hemicellulose and pectin. This makes it a good replacement for the fossil-based polyethylene that is used today.
What are you currently working on?
We want to fit our technology into standard manufacturing processes to make the transition to EcoFLEXY easy. Right now, we are working at lab scale and one of our major goals is to increase the yield of nanocellulose production, as well as a techno-economic assessment of the technology to ensure scalability and economic competitiveness of EcoFLEXY. During the second tranche of the PreSeed grant, we will focus on transferring the technology from lab scale to pre-pilot scale and progress in our cooperation with industry collaborators.
How did you approach the entrepreneurial path?
We observed so many good research ideas with market potential, but not fully exploited at the universities that at Cellugy we tried to explore a different approach. Instead of spending a lot of time on research and development, our first step was to validate our hypothesis in the market. We started working on the business case and collected data and feedback to bring back into the product development and used our network to get in contact with relevant stakeholders. We have been through a few accelerators and have learned a lot from being proactive on this, so we are truly scientists turned businesswomen.
Want to follow Cellugy? Find them here.
Did you apply for PreSeed in June? BII will announce the accepted projects from this call round in September 2020.