Swiss start-ups reinvent the plastics industry
As progress broadens the spectrum of technologies capable of reducing our plastic footprint, start-ups in Switzerland are making their presence felt in a bid to combine ecology with profitability.
Whether searching for substitutes for oil, broadening the range of recyclable plastics, making the sector more efficient or identifying new uses for recycled materials, the potential for improvement is enormous in the plastics industry, and this has not escaped the attention of entrepreneurs.
Like the medtech, biotech and even fintech companies before them, in Switzerland in recent years a number of start-ups have emerged intent on revolutionising a sector under pressure by reducing its environmental footprint, but also by developing profitable business models.
"We must aim for profitability." Florent Héroguel, co-founder in 2019 of Bloom Biorenewables, , is categorical. Winner of the prestigious W.A. de Vigier award in 2020, the new start-up wants to attack the "evil at its root", offering an alternative to petroleum by replacing it with plastic made from biomass.
"We can 'bio-refine' wood or nutshells to produce plastic," he explains. The start-up is targeting the agri-food sector by offering biodegradable packaging – a market as competitive as it is colossal. The project appears to be tailor-made for the initiative launched by Nestlé in January: the multinational intends to set up a CHF 250 million venture capital fund for precisely this type of enterprise
A new patented technique
Such support would give a significant boost to Bloom Biorenewables, which is banking on financial returns, or even profits, within five years. Like many other start-ups in the sector, it is planning a mixed model combining its own manufacturing plants with licensing deals. "Further down the line, we'd like to create hundreds of jobs."
Before that stage is reached, however, investors must first be found. Bloom Biorenewables is therefore busy fundraising. The same goes for DePoly, another start-up at the other end of the value chain. DePoly have developed a depolymerisation process that can recover two chemical components: terephthalic acid and monoethylene glycol. The company has also set its sights high. If it can find financial backers, its director, chemist Samantha Anderson, intends to build a first plant, "ideally in Switzerland", and from there make her patented technique widely available – a technique which is considered less energy-intensive and cheaper than current approaches.
Recycling is not considered attractive by European investors
Staffan Ahlgren, director of Tyre Recycling Solutions
It's all about money. Substantial sums of money. "Most of the start-ups active in this sector are looking for financial backing," observes Eric Plan, secretary general of the Swiss CleantechAlps. Clean technologies are capital-intensive: "When it comes to venture capital investment, this sector is lagging about 15 years behind biotech," he says. "Standardised steps to demonstrate the value of the technology and to de-risk the venture capital investment haven't yet been defined."
Staffan Ahlgren, director of Tyre Recycling Solutions (TRS), hits it on the head: "Recycling is simply not attractive to European investors, especially in Switzerland." He knows what he's talking about. The company was founded in 2013, producing rubber powder with new mechanical properties from used tyres, and has already raised CHF 20 million. They are now in a second capital raising round. TRS is also making inroads into the world of plastic waste, which is mixed with its micronised rubber powder, resulting in a compound that can be used to make new products, such as containers or speed bumps.
The company built its first factory at its base in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, but this week it announced the creation of a joint venture in China, a country that has, according to Staffan Ahlgren, a much better understanding of the industry's potential. As it is not particularly sensitive to cyclical fluctuations, it offers almost infinite prospects: "For every application we find, there's a global market out there."
A search for meaning – a priority for Swiss start-ups
Start-up UHCS has chosen to operate in the construction sector, manufacturing PET-based modular profiles for a new type of building. Plastogaz, a recent spin-off from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), is looking to transform non-recycled plastic into methane, while Pyrotech wants to produce fuel from plastic waste.
Initiatives abound, but that's also because tackling plastic pollution goes hand in hand with the search for meaning that motivates these start-ups – a desire to change the world. "I was looking for a project in the field of chemistry that would have a major impact," says Samantha Anderson, founder of DePoly.
To lend substance to their vision, however, some of these start-ups will by necessity have to grapple with the petrochemicals giants, who are determined to defend, or even extend, their turf. More than anything else, they will have to convince people of the virtuous nature of their activity, warns Eric Plan of Swiss CleantecAlps: "They'll have to prove that they're as energy efficient as the competition."
Florent Héroguel, Bloom Biorenewables' operations manager, gets questioned regularly about the risks of deforestation and is aware of this. He is keen to stress that the lessons learnt from first-generation biomass products, such as bioethanol, have indeed been learnt. "In the first instance we will work with waste from the forestry and agri-food industries. But then moving to industrial scale will require other resources, such as specific plantations."
To avoid overexploiting certain raw materials, Héroguel also insists on the need to diversify technologies. "It will also inevitably be necessary to reduce our dependence on plastics," he concludes.
Article initially published on Le Temps, by Aline Bassin in June 2020.