Lactic acid is used in cleaning formulations and food preservation, among other things. A residual flow of European sugar beet is used as raw material for this process. Jan Pieter Van Tilburg is cofounder and CEO of Nature’s Principles. Born in Brazil, where he worked in petroleum engineering, he came to the Netherlands for his MBA. Here he met Jules Rombouts, who had patented an innovative technology for L-lactic acid production and was looking for business partners. “For me, it was really appealing, because I was working for gas companies, and I quit my job because of sustainability reasons. I felt: okay, this is how I can contribute and compensate for the damage I did in the past. Eventually, Nature’s Principles was founded in December 2020, and I joined six months later. The process of Nature’s Principles is truly unique and different than the current market. Usually, companies that produce lactic acid start with pure sugar. They put this in a sterilized vessel and add water with specific strains of bacteria. Then the fermentation process starts, and lactic acid comes out. But the thing is, they add water on the fermenter. If you take a step back and look at the whole value chain, you see that before you get refined sugar, you need to evaporate the water from the crops. It basically makes little sense to first evaporate all the water to refine the sugar, and then later add the water again to ferment it, as water evaporation is energy heavy. This is where our process is hugely different: with our technology, instead of using refined sugar, we prepare the crop to be fermented. In this way, we are more efficient with costs and energy-use. Especially because we are flexible with our feedstock as well.
“Scaling up a circular startup is usually more difficult because you can’t use the traditional ways of doing things. We are paying more for our feedstock for instance. So, the challenge is to be circular, but also profitable. Related to this, there are several questions and challenges we’re addressing with Circular Factory. Upscaling the process is the first one. We have already validated what we can do in the lab. But going through pilots, demos and the commercial phase brings a lot of new difficulties. We don’t know what we are going to encounter, we’re learning in the process. We don’t have an experienced person in the company to guide us. We’re working with young, talented and motivated team members, who are still free in their way of thinking. This is important, because we’re pioneering and want to do things differently than they are usually done. But at the same time, this also means that it’s very important for us to have some support from experienced people that have already upscaled technologies. That’s why we decided to apply for Circular Factory, for this support. Collaborating with Tekkoo and PeelPioneers has been very helpful for us because they have an upscaled factory already. And our factory is really getting in sight, it’s practically knocking on the door. So Circular Factory helps us to start the process of developing our factory. Another thing we’re working on is customers. We do have some, but we definitely could use more, and the program has already given us valuable connections in this. We are also addressing partnerships. The partners in Circular Factory are very well-connected, which is something we really need in our current phase. We are also working on optimizing our process. Sometimes there are things that we don’t see or don’t think about. Having experienced people guide us, is unbelievably valuable with this. And last, financing. We’re quite capital intensive and it never hurts to have more financing options to secure your future.”
“In five years, we want to be producing at a large scale, on at least a 10 kilo tonne plant. With our factory, we hope to contribute to a cleaner environment. We see so much pollution nowadays, most of it being produced by production plants. The way our linear economy is built is not sustainable: we extract the feedstocks from nature, and then we produce something, and then we have the end product, and that’s it. It ends. Then we dump it elsewhere, because we don’t want it anymore. If we keep doing that, we are going to keep accumulating the trash. We need to go circular, because otherwise, we’re just going to keep on accumulating trash. At some point, we are risking to kill our planet. So, we need to stop producing things that don’t degrade and go circular. I think it’s urgent that change will come in the future, and I am excited about the contribution of Nature’s Principles to this future.”
Invest-NL is one of the supporters of the Circular Factory program. In this interview, Maud Hartstra and Guy de Sévaux discuss the importance of scaling up circular startups. “All kinds of developments are underway, which means that many more circular start-ups will be founded in the coming years. Circular Factory is designed for circular startups in the manufacturing industry that want to scale their production by building their first factory; and help them to make this factory circular. In addition to these startups, we also see on a larger scale a new focus of moving production closer to home. More and more manufacturing companies previously located in Asia and Eastern Europe are returning to Western Europe. With the Circular Factory program we want to point out to the entire value chain that making things circular and sustainable requires a different approach and mindset, but also changes in business models and new ways of financing. As far as Invest-NL is concerned, Circular Factory is coming at the right time.”Read more
On Tuesday 20 September, experts flocked to BlueCity to attend the first Pitch & Plug Event, part of the Circular Factory program by BlueCity and Tekkoo. The six participating startups pitched to the gathered crowd. This time not a shiny success story meant to sell their product, but a raw and real story about the key-issues that are currently holding them back from scaling up. Their vulnerability was rewarded with tailor-made advice. During this networking event, connections were made, feedback was given and plans were rewritten.Read more