Biolatex binders and adhesives derived from corn, potato and tapioca starches replace petrochemical-based products.
Ecosynthetix’s biomaterials alchemy puts the green into manufacturing.
A lot has changed since John van Leeuwen and Steven Bloembergen founded EcoSynthetix Inc. in 1996.
Bio-based plastics, a material in its infancy that didn’t excite financiers that were more comfortable with cheaper petrochemical-based plastics, weren’t on the radar. But since then, EcoSynthetix has continued to develop environmentally friendly alternatives to petrochemicals by applying green chemistry and sustainable manufacturing methods.
The renewable chemicals company is now taking off thanks to the growing success of its biopolymers made from crop-based starches for paper and paperboard products, architectural coatings and adhesives, which EcoSynthetix says have performance capabilities superior to those of traditional petroleum-based products, while significantly reducing the user’s carbon footprint.
“If you use raw materials that are crop-based, that crop will have captured the CO2 in the season it grew in,” explains van Leeuwen, the company’s CEO. “If you grow a field of corn, it captures CO2. The sunlight and the CO2 form the starch, and if you now use the starch you basically have used a raw material that has sequestered CO2. It has captured CO2 which you then use in your product. That in itself is a more sustainable approach to making these industrial materials.”
And the company’s fortunes are helped along by high oil prices that are hovering around $100 per barrel.
EcoSphere, its first product patented in 2001, is a biolatex binder that’s used as an alternative to styrene butadiene latex in the coated paper and paperboard industry. It’s manufactured at two plants in Tennessee and in Oosterhout, the Netherlands, which produce more than 235 million pounds a year. A pilot plant at the company’s Burlington, Ont. headquarters lets the company carry out rapid prototype and scaling activities to drive new product development.
In 2011, the company issued the largest clean-tech IPO to date on the Toronto Stock Exchange, putting approximately $100 million in the company’s coffers, which has helped EcoSynthetix refine its catalogue of bio-based coatings and binders. It has since expanded market applications to building products, paints, adehsives and carpet backing.
Van Leeuwen and Bloembergen met in the Netherlands as kids before coming to Canada in the mid-1970’s to attend the University of Waterloo, where both studied chemistry. Bloembergen completed a PhD in bioplastics, while Van Leeuwen opted for industry experience, working for venture capital firm Tech Inspirations Inc., and next within the chemicals industry for Monsanto and Shell Chemicals.
Bloembergen spent time working for Polysar Rubber, the Xerox Research Centre of Canada and the Michigan Biotechnology Institute before reuninting with van Leeuwen in 1996. “Stephen [Bloembergen, who is executive vice-president] approached me about doing his own thing in the area of biobased adhesives in late 1995. I liked the idea and said, ‘why don’t we start a company?,’” says van Leeuwen. “We wrote everything out on a napkin and came to the conclusion that we could make industrial materials that were environmentally friendly.”
The early days
They spent their first four years in the lab, developing and refining new chemistries, trying to make them commercially viable. By 2001, they’d developed EcoSphere bioadhesives and sealants and had acquired the necessary process patents to take the product to market, which went commercial in 2003.
Van Leeuwen, who had provided the seed money to get the operation off the ground, secured a second round of financing from Minneapolis-based chemical giant Cargill in 2004 to fund EcoSphere production. He was named CEO while the company moved forward to replace petroleum-based polyvinyl acetate in Cargill’s paperboard packaging laminating applications.
EcoSynthetix acquired its first major customer in 2007. Suzano, which is based in Brazil, adopted EcoShere into its coated paper and paperboard production. Now the product is supplied to more than 25 mills in eight countries.
In 2012, the company reported revenues of more than $20 million and added nine new mills to its customer base. It also increased its production capacity to 235 million pounds after installing its fourth production line, compared to just 35 million pounds in 2010.
Upgraded product offerings include the first new monomer in the chemical industry in 20 years called EcoMer, a bio-based building block for developing waterborne sugar-acrylic adhesives and resins. The sugar used to produce the product is derived from the glucose or dextrose found in cornstarch. EcoStix, a pressure sensitive adhesive product, can be customized to wash-off at specific temperatures so the adhesive doesn’t interfere with paper or plastic recycling processes.
Two-thirds of the company’s 60 employees work at its innovation centre in Burlington. Ten per cent of them hold PhDs in chemistry or chemical engineering. They drive new product innovation.
EcoSynthentix has signed an industrial partnership with the University of Waterloo’s Institute of Nanotechnology to explore new applications for Ecosphere, which is made from starches derived from renewable crop resources such as corn, potatoes and tapioca. The institute focuses on science and engineering at the atomic scale, which entails the design, fabrication and exploitation of materials where dimensions are measured in the billionths of a metre.
The five-year agreement is jointly funded through an EcoSynthetix and NSERC (National Sciences and Engineering Research Council) Collaborative Research and Development Grant.
EcoSphere is commercially utilized as bio-based latex products providing alternatives to petroleum binders in the coated paper and paperboard market. EcoSynthetix says the project’s goal is to generate a greater understanding of the EcoSphere’s properties. The project team will be chemically modifying the nanoparticles and characterizing how their properties are affected by any changes.
This collaboration may not have happened had the company not moved its R&D headquarters from Michigan to Ontario in 2010. Funding from the federal Sustainable Development Technology Canada program and Ontario’s Innovation Development Fund supported the move and the development of EcoSynthetix’s Centre of Innovation, which includes the scaled down pilot plant to prove new technologies and their scalability to ensure they’re commercially viable.
Van Leeuwen says lower corporate taxation rates, higher research and development tax credits and improved federal and provincial funding made the move an easy decision. Its Burlington headquarters is also about an hour’s drive to the University of Waterloo, one of Canada’s top engineering faculties.
Indeed, van Leeuwen attributes much of the company’s growth to a low-cost, flexible manufacturing process that allows it to build capacity easily. Rather than using different machines to make each of the products, the chemistry is managed in Burlington for use in a single manufacturing process at facilities in the US and the Netherlands.
Manufacturing green chemistry
“We’re unique in the sense that we own the assets and the infrastructure to manufacture our product, but we contract someone else to actually run the equipment,” says Ted Van Egdom, senior vice-president of market realization and product manufacturing. “There’s lots we can leverage from someone else so we don’t have the burden of every day functions, so we teach those people how to make our products while we focus on R&D.”
He describes the process as toll manufacturing, a unique model to scale up technology. It also allows the company’s contract manufacturers to diversify from traditional products and open up new revenue streams in new sectors, such as cleantech.
Van Leeuwen says the process was also adopted out of necessity back in 2004, when venture capital for clean-tech startups was harder to find. But that’s changing. The company’s state-of-the-art pilot plant is a good example of how far clean-tech investment has come in a short period of time.
“One of the big hurdles in green chemistry is the issue of scalability. Lots of guys can do it on a small scale, but building a full commercial-scale plant is hard. The toll manufacturing route is working very well for us, and we’ve broken that scale-up bottleneck that has traditionally slowed the growth of materials,” says van Leeuwen.
Its annual production of 235 million pounds is shipped as a dry polymer to six satelite dispersion facilities, where liquid is added. This makes it easier for the customer to use the product, says Van Egdom.
“But shipping the product as a dry, lighter biolatex initially takes significant freight costs out of the equation, which is in line with our efforts to be as sustainable a company as we can be.”
The process also allows EcoSynthetix to focus on R&D in Burlington and leverage the strong academic talent pool in nearby Waterloo. The company’s four-year collaboration agreement with the Institute of Nanotechnology includes four professors and eight PhD and graduate students.
“We started as an R&D company, which was necessary to develop and patent the products we sell,” says Van Leeuwen. “As we started commercializing more products, we recognized the value in tying back to the academic community. Speed to market is essential to our business because the world is consuming oil at an alarming rate…We’re training people that we may hire later on to feed our scientist pool, which can turn into new products.”
The heavily automated pilot line delivers an additional 80 million pounds of product per year and is equipped with the capability of handling multiple types of raw material feedstocks and extracts a sample every five seconds, enabling product quality data cataloguing on a lot-to-lot basis, and bag-to-bag basis.
The downstream portion of the extrusion facility is equally sophisticated with very stringent package weight control and ultrasonic bag sealing to eliminate any potential ingress of moisture. Packaging options range from 25-kilogram bags to super-sacks and bulk delivery via rail car or tank truck.
“The pilot plant allows us to take an idea and scale it up once its proven to make production quantities, which we can then roll out to our manufacturing plants,” says van Leeuwen. “We’re trying to collapse the evaluation cycle that the customer normally has from something that takes years to something that’s less than a year.”
That speed in an industry worth $60 billion, van Leeuwen says, will take EcoSynthetix to the next level.
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This article appears in the July/August 2013 edition of PLANT.