Gudrun Freese, Communications & Public Affairs Lead at Climate-KIC UK & Ireland, here interviews Florence Gschwend, Co-founder at Chrysalix Technologies, a UK-based startup focused on transforming waste materials into industrial feedstock.
The team, who met at Imperial College, are currently part of Climate-KIC’s Accelerator programme. Chrysalix Tech won a €25,000 runner-up prize at this year’s Climate Impact Battle—Climate-KIC’s renowned annual startup competition hosted at Slush—where they pitched against the best Climate-KIC startups from across Europe.
GF: You pitched against the best Climate-KIC start-ups from across Europe, and won the €25,000 runner up prize in our Climate Impact Battle. Congrats! What do you think tipped it for you?
FG: “We have developed a technology and a circular business model that has the potential to replace the entire petrochemical industry. That gets people’s attention!”
GF: What is the problem you’re trying to solve?
FG: “So many of the products we use every day start out as petroleum. Not just fuels and plastic packaging, but also aspirin, clothing, carpeting, crayons, detergents, fertilisers, perfume, shampoo, soft contact lenses, rubber, and wax. Petrochemicals are a massive industry driving a huge secondary market for petroleum, so they take a huge toll on the environment. Take the very topical subject of plastics. Plastics account for six per cent of total crude oil use and about one percent of global CO2 emissions—now. But unless we change the way plastics are made, by 2050, the plastics industry is expected to consume 20 per cent of total oil production and 15 per cent of the annual carbon budget.”
GF: How does your business turn this problem into an opportunity?
FG: “We are solving this very tangible problem in an elegant way; we have developed a chemical process that can turn unwanted, unrecycled waste wood, and agricultural by-products (as well as sustainably-grown biomass), into new bio-derived raw materials for the production of sustainable chemicals, plastics, and fuels. In the EU and the US alone, around 100 million metric tonnes of waste wood remain unrecycled every year. This represents a vast economic loss and an untapped resource.
Our process has clear advantages over existing technologies: It is very robust and also versatile, so it supports a variety of input materials— agricultural residues, grasses, and different tree species—in a one-size-fits-all process. By using very low-cost feedstock as input, our process also results in a lower production cost for bio-derived materials, making them cost-competitive with current petrochemical-based alternatives. This is a key part of what makes this a potentially breakthrough technology.”
GF: What’s your business model?
FG: “We license our process to companies in bio-refining industries. This allows them to use any woody material—including very low-value waste wood—to produce an intermediate material for a wide range of applications including polylactic acid (a bioplastic), carbon fibres, microcrystalline cellulose or bioethanol.”
GF: What do you tell investors with social and environmental impact criteria?
FG: “Our process has the potential to be a breakthrough technology in the low-carbon economy. The market for low-cost bio-derived chemicals, materials, and fuels is vast. They have the potential to replace the entire petrochemicals industry.
It is very important to us that our technology has a positive and strategic impact, so our focus now is on developing a process that is both as energy efficient as possible and uses locally-sourced raw materials. We are also building a model that minimizes cost by developing a process that can turn under-used or even unwanted materials such as waste wood and forestry residues into a widely-used intermediate raw material used across many large industries.
Many companies want more recycling options, especially in Europe. With our technology, a waste management company would be able to offer higher recycling rates when bidding for contracts. With government and corporate waste reduction targets on the rise, that’s a big advantage.
Our technology offers the use of a truly sustainable feedstock for new products. Consumer awareness is growing – for example about the sources and impacts of the materials used in everyday products. The ability to offer a more considerate and sustainable alternative is becoming more and more important.”
GF: Can we decouple plastics from fossil feedstocks?
FG: “There are so many different kinds of plastics, with many different purposes. I think we could replace petroleum with plant matter in all of the plastics we actually need, but not in all the plastics we currently use. We should also look at substitutes—e.g. is the problem that clingfilm solves a problem that can only be solved by plastic?”
GF: Where does your startup fit in the wider transition story?
FG: “We can help reduce dependency on oil and lower the carbon footprint of all the industries that currently rely on petrochemicals, while also creating value and jobs in the ‘next’ economy. When an industry this big undergoes a shift like this, it’s also an opportunity to rethink an entire value chain, so we are also helping to accelerate that shift to a new, circular ‘plastics economy’.”
GF: What’s next for your team?
FG: “We are scaling up. We are working on the blueprint for our pilot plant, we intend to grow our technical team, and we are forging stronger relationships with companies in our value chain.”
GF: What’s your invitation to the world—anything you’d like to put out there?
FG: “We are looking for: funding to accelerate our scale-up phase; a CTO to be part of our team; and companies interested in forming a consortium for grant applications. If you’d like to work for us or if you work in a related industry somewhere along our value chain, please get in touch: email@example.com or visit www.chrysalixtechnologies.com.”
“I like everything about Climate-KIC. I’ve done literally every programme they offer. They supported part of my Ph.D., I did their summer school The Journey, I liked the Greenhouse pre-incubation programme, and I participated in the ClimateLaunchpad competition. Now, we’re in the Climate-KIC Start-up Accelerator. I’m very sure I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Climate-KIC. I would probably never have considered starting a company. It has been absolutely fantastic.” — Florence Gschwend
Chrysalix Tech’s amazing year:
January: Chrysalix Tech joins the EIT Climate-KIC UK & Ireland Startup Accelerator Programme at Imperial College London. Co-founder Florence Gschwend named by Forbes 30 under 30 as one of Europe’s most promising game changers in the field of Science and Healthcare.
June: Florence passes her Ph.D. Viva in the morning and wins the Royal Academy of Engineering Future of Engineering Prize in the evening! Chrysalix awarded BioBase4SME Voucher to carry out work at the BioBase Europe Pilot Plant in Ghent. Chrysalix is a finalist in the Royal Society of Chemistry Emerging Technologies Competition
September and October: Chrysalix awarded a £3,000 runner-up prize in the EIT Climate-KIC UK & Ireland Venture Competition Finals. Florence Gschwend awarded EIT Change Award.
November: Chrysalix wins a €25,000 runner-up prize at the 2017 Climate Impact Battle (where the best Climate-KIC startups from across Europe compete for two prizes of €50,000 and €25,000).
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