Trade missions to technology expos are very useful for start-ups. This was evident during the Finnish trade expo Slush, where 4TU.IMPACT held the finals of the last Impact Challenge. Several start-ups from the four participating Dutch technical universities (4TU) traveled to Finland. The participants were able to expand their networks and come into contact with investors there.
Start-up Nature’s Principles is headed to Viva Technology. This spin-off from TU Delft is working on the production of lactic acid, a building block for the biobased plastic substitute polylactic acid (PLA). Nature's Principles' new process method significantly reduces the cost of PLA. Moreover, the process uses half as much CO2 as plastic produced from petroleum. Nature's Principles was also part of the trip to Slush.
The market for PLA is growing. Despite the fact that the fermentation process is more expensive than the variant produced with fossil fuels. In that fermentation process, sugar is converted into lactic acid, the main ingredient for PLA. "However, that process needs refined sugar, to feed the what is known as pure culture," explains Jan Pieter van Tilburg, co-founder and CEO of Nature's Principles. "In this, all bacteria have the same properties. Specific microorganisms are added so that the fermentation can do its work."
“These refined sugars are expensive," Van Tilburg continues, "Most of the time the sugar comes from sugarcane or corn, which originates from America or Asia. That implies high transport costs. And that significantly reduces its sustainability. We are able to do the fermentation process of the entire crop here, which cuts costs by thirty percent."
Nature's Principles uses 'undefined mixed cultures'. "This gives us more flexibility in the types of crop we use, such as raw sugar beets. Sugar beets are widely available in several European countries. As a result, we can set up the entire value chain from the beginning to the end here on a local scale. We are ensuring that the entire production process is sustainable this way."
The technology developed by Nature's Principles converts the carbohydrates in raw sugar beets into lactic acid. The start-up is now setting up a pilot for a few hundred kilos of lactic acid in the Friesian town of Balk. Funding from ShiftInvest, the Thematic Technology Transfer Program - Circular Technology (TTT-CT) and an angel investor Jeroen van Rotterdam are making the pilot project possible.
There are many potential uses for Nature's Principles sustainably produced lactic acid. In addition to being an alternative to the plastic packaging material found in supermarkets, there are also other markets. "For example, it can also be used very effectively in cleaning products."
Van Tilburg, unlike his name may suggest, is Brazilian. He owes his last name to his grandparents who emigrated to Brazil. Two years ago, van Tilburg came to the Netherlands for an MBA program at TIAS in Tilburg.
In Brazil, Van Tilburg worked as a petroleum engineer at Petrobras for four years. He resigned. Partly because the work he was doing was anything but sustainable. He is now working on a solution to the problem he helped to create he says with a rueful smile.
After his MBA studies, Van Tilburg attempted to start a company twice. For that, he participated in two start-up acceleration programs at HighTechXL in Eindhoven and Holland Start-up in Utrecht. Those efforts turned out to be unsuccessful. During an event held by the incubator Yes!Delft, he met Jules Rombouts, Van Tilburg's current business partner.
The right time
As a doctoral student, Rombouts was working on the technology that converts carbohydrates from sugar beets to lactic acid. He started Nature's Principles to take the technology to the market. Rombouts and Van Tilburg started talking about "mixed cultures." Van Tilburg decided to join the start-up. "I want to fully commit myself to sustainability," he explains.
So, then came the Finnish international technology fair Slush. It was there that Van Tilburg met seven investors. He wanted to gain a better understanding of investors. That's how he learned what's a good time to go for new funding. "That has to do with the risk investors see in your innovation. It differs from investor to investor as to when they are willing to step in. Some step in when the risk is high but then want a large stake in your company. Another steps in when the risk is lower and asks for a smaller stake."
Armed with this knowledge, Van Tilburg and Rombouts mapped out the development path of the technology further. After the pilot phase, a demo phase will follow in order to scale up production. "We expect to be profitable by then. But the real return on investment comes when we can actually produce tonnes and tonnes of lactic acid." That will be accomplished in an actual plant that should be ready in 2026.
Slush was immensely valuable to Van Tilburg. He ended up with several contacts from it. "Sometimes you have to go far away to meet people in your closest circles," he said. During Slush, Van Tilburg met a cleantech start-up located in the same city as Nature's Principles. "Sometimes you just need events like this to meet each other," he said.
That is why Nature's Principle is also accompanying the trade mission to Viva Technology. Van Tilburg is hoping to make new contacts there. And to learn from others. According to him, start-ups need to talk as much as possible to others who are on the same development path.
"There are so many blind spots. If you don't keep on talking to people all the time and validating what you're doing, then you run the risk of being on the wrong track without being aware of it. Then when you suddenly discover that, it might be too late. That can sometimes destroy a company or demotivate its team. So networking and learning are essential to me."
A sustainable world
Van Tilburg and Rombouts look forward to establishing important contacts and partnerships that will contribute to a sustainable world: "Those that will help us all develop a better future. One in which we can breathe clean air and benefit from clean water everywhere."
Maurits Burgering, program director at the Thematic Technology Transfer Program - Circular Technology (TTT-CT), already announced in an interview with IO earlier this year, that Nature's Principles would be a promising innovation.