Two ambitious scale-ups with two innovative technologies. Combine them together and the possibilities are infinite. “One plus one is not two in this equation but eleven.” That is what DSM-Niaga and Ecor experienced. Read below how directors Chris Reutelingsperger (Niaga) and Eric Logtens (Ecor) talk about their cooperation, market disruption, awareness around sustainability and circularity.
Large bags filled with hemp and jeans lay on the floor of Ecor’s R&D facility in Venlo, Cradle-to-Cradle capital of The Netherlands. Here they press panels or sheets out of these materials, using water, pressure and heat. Take two sheets, honeycomb cardboard and traditional veneer wood, glue them together with DSM-Niaga glue and you have an endless recyclable desktop.
Thanks to the innovative adhesive technology, the materials can easily be separated at the end of the use phase. By bringing them back into the production process new panels can be made using the same adhesive technology. This keeps the value of the materials at their highest possible level, as it should be in a circular economy.
“I did not know what a circular economy was,” admits Reutelingsperger. “Until it turned out that I have been working on it for years. I just did not know it was called that way.” Circular thinking is in Reutelingsperger’s DNA. As a hobby he developed technologies with which materials can be continually reused and recycled. It grew into a company: Niaga, an anagram of again. Since DSM’s fine chemicals company became involved, they started developing a scalable technology for fully recyclable carpet. This is how the DSM-Niaga joint venture was established.
Logtens is responsible at Ecor for the worldwide marketing of panels or sheets made from cellulose in residual “waste” streams. The potential is enormous, because the panels can be used for many applications: from ceiling tiles and marketing stands/displays to kitchen cabinets. The development of this technology took no less than nine years, it’s now time to bring in revenue, “You can imagine that the level of ambition is very high, if you have been patient for the first dollar turnover”, says Logtens.
“I did not know what a circular economy was, until it turned out that I have been working on it for years”
Both companies are busy scaling up and finding even more applications for their circular technologies. An important step in this is finding the right partners. The CE100 program of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation proved to be a suitable platform for finding ‘like-minded’ parties. The program is aimed at bringing together various stakeholders to accelerate the transition towards a circular economy. “Everybody there has the same ambition and we stimulate each other’s creativity and ideas”, reflects Logtens. It was there that the first contact between Ecor and DSM-Niaga was made.
New applications through collaboration
Not long after, the companies investigated possible ways for cooperation. The technologies were combined and tested in different applications, such as furniture. Logtens shows a kitchen door as an example: “The structure is two Ecor panels with a honeycomb cardboard in between. But for us to able to recycle these back into our production process to make new ones, there should be no oil-based paint or an adhesive that doesn’t allow us to separate the materials”. Lamination with DSM-Niaga adhesive is the perfect solution.
In order to understand the potential impact, think of everything that is made from chipboards: kitchen cabinets, office interiors, table baths. The hard-to-reclaim chipboards are often glued together with glue containing toxic substances such as phenol and formaldehyde. “By replacing these panels with Ecor panels glued together with Niaga-glue, the incinerator and landfill is now a thing of the past”, says Logtens.
More collaborations and research for the development of fully recyclable products is on the program. The door is open to designers with fresh ideas for beautiful concepts, products and applications to broaden adoption of the technology. The starting point of the cooperation between DSM-Niaga and Ecor is ‘Easy to do business with’.
It is a beautiful story and sounds very logical. How do you realize the ambition? And how do you get adaption by the market? Logtens replies resolutely “It is not an ambition, it is a reality, but most people have not seen it yet”.
However, he does not expect the transformation to come from traditional industry, such as in Ecor’s case, for example from the furniture industry. “A disruption almost never comes from the industry to which it relates, it almost always comes from outside. Those guys from Uber were not taxi drivers and those from Airbnb were not Hilton”, compares Logtens. Ecor does not operate in the traditional way, for example by selling to wholesalers, but works directly with its end users. As a result, they skip the middlemen and also remain in control of the material flows needed to make the sustainable impact and their business model work.
“A disruption of an industry almost never comes from the industry to which it relates, it always comes from outside”
Reutelingsperger has a different view of the Logtens Uber analogy: “We were not the ‘taxi drivers’ but we did need the ‘taxi companies’ to validate our process.” DSM-Niaga developed a technology for a fully recyclable polyester carpet. The carpet backing, the glue and the top are of the same material. This makes it possible to endlessly recycle the carpet, in contrast to traditional carpets that consist of several materials. A carpet made from polyester backing with nylon and wool fibers from DSM-Niaga can also be recycled, because the adhesive technology makes it easy to disconnect the materials.
“Our technology was so new that nobody believed it works,” says Chris. Ultimately, American carpet producer Mohawk took on the role of validating the process. Every day thousands of square meters of the carpet are produced. “And now you see that the industry looks at it differently”, Chris concludes. But ultimately it also applies here: the end user must also participate. This requires a higher awareness and better understanding of sustainability and circularity among both companies and consumers.
Three carpet samples are laying on the table. A traditional carpet, a 100% bio-based carpet and the polyester carpet. “When people have the choice between a biobased carpet or a polyester carpet, many think the former is the most circular”, says Reutelingsperger. “However, it is the polyester carpet that is endlessly recyclable.”
“If you have an idea, do not start with the apple. Try to make a passion fruit out of it “
An increasing number of consumers are willing to pay more for a sustainable product. The problem is that it is not always clear what is really sustainable and circular. Reutelingsperger shows a packet of ‘boxed water’ that he bought for $5 in New York. “Under the masses, the cash register is ringing,” he growls. “You can pack water in glass or in PET plastic, but not in paper. Of course you can make toilet paper from the paper, but that is not the same as packaging. “And that is what a circular economy is all about: what happens to materials at the end of a product’s life cycle? “If I am a carpet producer, I want to continue with carpet,” says Reutelingsperger.
From start-up to scale-up
It is remarkable that both companies are on the eve of scaling up after years of development. Many start-ups don’t even get to the scale-up phase. What is that about? It starts with a really great idea, and not many people have those. Reutelingsperger calls it the ‘apple theory’. “If you ask people to write down as much fruit as possible in 30 seconds, everyone comes with apple, and then pear comes, and then comes banana. Try to make it a passion fruit what comes out. “
A lack of discipline and perseverance is also common. Reutelingsperger compares it with a child who learns to walk: “Before a child can walk he or she falls 3,500 times. Most people fall three times and then think: that hurts, it does not work. “
Logtens adds that a good business model is crucial. “Even if you have such a wonderful technology, the business model has to work.” For Logtens, that means looking through the eyes of the customer and not through the eyes of the company. Success is measured beyond turnover and profit margins. “It’s also about how many jobs you have created, what you do on a micro-economic level, carbon footprint, and so on.”.
Speed is an important factor with which companies can distinguish themselves. It’s a feature that many start-ups have, but larger companies can also switch or pivot quickly. The collaboration between DSM-Niaga and Ecor proves this. “The combination of the two technologies has been validated in an extremely short timeframe looking from the perspective of DSM but this is for us normal” explains Logtens. It shows that speed is more important than the size of a company if you want to take major steps towards a circular economy.
“There are still a lot of people and organizations who think that the big companies are against the little ones. But it’s about the fast against the slow “
Logtens states: “There are still a lot of people and organizations who think that the big companies are against the little ones. But it’s about the fast against the slow. “Reutelingsperger agrees. Moreover, it is precisely through the cooperation between small and large companies that wonderful things happen. Reutelingsperger talks from experience. With Niaga, Reutelingsperger had a technology with huge potential in his hands but only in collaboration with DSM he was able to further develop and make it ready for scaling.
Reutelingsperger looks back when the project was in danger of being discontinued. A project with knowledge institute TNO to develop the glue for carpet went wrong. Reutelingsperger: “You can have a recipe for a product but to scale that same recipe from one liter to 20,000 liters, you’ll have to do a lot to get there.” It is a huge step that comes with huge investments. That drove Reuterlingsperger to look for strategic business partners. “We have called all kinds of large companies such as ICI and AkzoNobel. DSM was the only one who wanted to hear our story”.
The resulting joint venture DSM-Niaga and the cooperation with Ecor is ‘not an ambition, it’s a reality’ and this is just the beginning.