5 early stage, biobased startups to keep an eye on

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There are several technology developers in the biobased materials and chemicals industries. A handful have survived the challenging and evolving market circumstances of the past decade, such as low oil prices and volatile feedstock costs, learning from past failures and finding (often niche) market opportunities. More recent entrants, on the other hand, are riding the tailwinds of these past pioneers as well as a wave of renewed interest in biobased solutions for their potential in decarbonizing and defossilizing industry. As in the past, many of these developers, especially startups, will struggle to scale given a lack of policy incentives — like subsidies or tax credits — to make their processes economically competitive. Others will produce materials that miss the mark in terms of performance — failing to match the specifications for a given application or identify the right material-product fit. However, several promising developers are emerging, offering solutions to improve yields and lower costs, unlocking performance gains, or taking advantage of other external factors (e.g., the need to avoid/replace materials of concern) likely to drive adoption. 

Here, Lux lists five early stage startups (founded after 2020) in the biobased industry that stand out as companies to know. 

#1 OzoneBio (Founded: 2021 — Country: Canada — Product: adipic acid)

OzoneBio is developing a biocatalytic route to produce adipic acid from lignocellulosic biomass. Conventional adipic acid production leads to nitrous oxide release — a much more potent greenhouse gas and pollutant than CO2. The gas goes to the upper layer of the atmosphere, where it binds to and destroys ozone — hence, the company name OzoneBio. OzoneBio claims its product would be the world’s first emissions-free adipic acid.

The company first preprocesses lignin using low-heat pyrolysis, transforming the heavy fractions of the lignin into biochar. The company then feeds the light fractions of the lignin into a reactor containing its biocatalysts. OzoneBio refers to its biocatalysts as “zombie cells” — cells that are not living but stabilize the enzymes performing the reaction. Because the cells are in an intermediate state, they are less sensitive than living cells to toxic feedstocks. Unlike other biobased routes to adipic acid, the company’s route is neither sugar nor fermentation based, and the process results in high-purity (>99%) grades of adipic acid that can be readily polymerized. The company recently completed a 50-L reactor and is producing kilograms of material to send to potential customers. The company has tested nylons produced using its adipic acid and claims they perform the same as other nylons on the market derived from fossil-based adipic acid (e.g., same molecular weight and melting temperature).

#2 Låkril Technologies (Founded: 2021 — Country: U.S. — Product: acrylic acid)

Låkril is developing a platform for biobased, low-carbon acrylic acid and acrylates that are drop-in replacements for paints and superabsorbent polymers for diapers and personal hygiene products. Upstream volatility in the acrylic acid market and downstream demand for sustainable products continue to drive interest in biobased acrylic acid. Directly converting lactic acid into acrylic acid is difficult, given the positioning of the hydroxyl group. However, Låkril claims its catalysts result in sufficient yields to make the process economical. 

Låkril’s core technology involves catalysts that effectively dehydrate alpha-hydroxy acids. Its catalysts consist of a faujasite-type zeolite, which is a material widely synthesized, impregnated with multifunctional diamines. The company’s technology is based on prior work at the University of Minnesota, which the co-founders spun off into a commercial entity in 2021. The team has done an excellent job benchmarking how its catalysts compare with competing solutions (including Procter & Gamble’s process that Cargill is working to commercialize). The company is still at an early development stage but worth monitoring as it works to scale and verify its process.

#3 Relement (Founded: 2020 — Country: Netherlands — Product: aromatics)

Relement has developed a thermochemical process to produce bioaromatics, initially, 3-methylphthalic anhydride (MPA) derived from furfural. MPA is an alternative to fossil-based phthalic anhydride, an aromatic used in alkyd paints, adhesives, and insulation foams. MPA has improved performance properties such as lower viscosity, improved spreadability, higher thermal stability, increased longevity (when used as a coating, it persists on the surface), and improved hardness. Since the company uses renewable feedstocks and operates the process at a low temperature (not exceeding 100 °C) and pressure, the process can also offer reductions in CO2 emissions. 

The thermochemical process for producing MPA uses 2-methylfuran derived from the decarbonylation of furfural and fossil-based maleic anhydride. The reaction occurs in a two-step process using the Diels-Alder reaction under low temperature and pressure. The company has selected a European contract manufacturer to produce product samples, which is a key first step in securing customers and validating the material’s performance — it will produce MPA at a metric-ton scale in 2024. The company has demonstrated an industrial coating with Worlée-Chemie and Baril Coatings and recently announced a partnership with AkzoNobel to test the use of MPA in coatings.

#4 Matereal (Founded: 2020 — Country: U.S. — Product: nonisocyanate polyurethanes)

Matereal produces novel nonisocyanate polyurethanes (NIPUs) with tunable performance properties to replace conventional isocyanate-derived polyurethanes (PUs). Conventionally, amines or amine salts are reacted with toxic phosgene to produce isocyanates, and concerns about the negative health implications have prompted interest in isocyanate-free PUs. Matereal’s process first involves the epoxidation of unsaturated fatty acids. Rather than opening the epoxide rings to form polyols, the epoxide groups react with CO2 to form cyclic carbonates, which then react with amines (not isocyanates) to form hydroxypolyurethanes. The company uses linseed oil as its feedstock.

NIPU synthesis using cyclic carbonates and amines, like Matereal’s solution does, has gained popularity. However, such routes have been deemed difficult to commercialize due to technical challenges like altered performance properties relative to conventional PUs and unstable reactions. Matereal, however, has shown that it is able to tune its formulations and has created samples of coatings, adhesives, and foams using its NIPUs. In 2020, Fashion for Good selected Matereal for its accelerator programs, and in 2021, the company was one of 11 startups picked to participate in a new accelerator program run by Venture For ClimateTech. The company is now looking to build a production facility in Colorado and expects the facility to begin operations by mid-2024 with a production capacity of 3,000 tonne/y.

#5 Kelpi (Founded: 2020 — Country: U.K. — Product: barrier coatings)

Kelpi develops biobased materials derived from seaweed for paper coatings. Its coatings offer high water and water vapor barrier performance while providing moderate oxygen, grease, and mineral oil barriers and acid-resistant properties. Its formulations are free of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) while ensuring the recyclability and compostability of paper packaging. Over the past few years, interest has risen significantly in using seaweed-based materials as a substitute for plastic packaging and formulations for coatings. These materials have gained popularity as they provide a good gas barrier and a great barrier against grease and mineral oils, offering a biobased alternative to PFAS formulations. However, seaweed-based materials tend to have poor barriers against water and water vapor, making them suitable only for applications that don’t require a long shelf life.  In contrast to many companies that develop seaweed-based alternatives, Kelpi can provide water and water vapor barrier solutions for pulp and paper products and ensure a shelf life of 12 months.

Kelpi sources seaweed-based carbohydrates derived from external biorefineries and functionalizes them with vegetable oils to tune the properties of the final materials. The formulations for coatings can be applied by extrusion or lamination onto paper and cardboard. Kelpi is also developing different application routes, including spray and dip coatings for 3D-molded products.

For more information or to learn about other interesting companies developing biobased solutions, please be sure to reach out

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