It had never occurred to me that my beloved IKEA fibreboard furniture which I had happily acquired as student is near to un-recyclable, and that it will probably end up being incinerated or rotting in a landfill one day. So I was quite surprised when I learnt this unpleasant truth during Kenny Vanreppelen´s pitch for his startup “Act&Sorb” at Falling Walls Venture this year. The more relieved I was that Kenny has developed an upcycling-solution, which means that my desk will instead be used to purify water in the form of activated carbon. After his pitch, Kenny met up with WUNDERDING to tell us how he and “Act&Sorb” are making this possible.
WUNDERDING: Could you give us an overview on what you do at Act&Sorb?
Kenny Vanreppelen: At Act&Sorb, we want to transform the recycling solutions that are available. A lot of products were made in the 70s or the 80s and at that time, there was no need for recycling solutions, so we had a “throw-away-society”. Our vision is to transform that recycling-world, to make new recycling technologies for post-consumer products that at this moment aren’t recyclable.
We are currently working on the recycling of fibreboard waste. The furniture industry and then kitchen industry are making a lot of fibreboard for their products. It is a wonderful product, making good use of the available wood. Nevertheless, fibreboard was developed in the 1970s and unfortunately there’s still no recycling solution for it. With our upcycling solution, we turn it into a high value specialty activated carbon and we can use that for water treatment or the purification of chemicals and pharmaceuticals – that’s our goal. In that way, we can avoid that fresh wood is cut for these applications. In the future, there will be more opportunities for these materials as, looking at the battery-industry– they are searching for better ways of converting electricity with higher efficiency by using carbon materials that are chemically enhanced, and our activated carbon which we produce is a very good product for that. So, the initial phase is to go for a product that is used for upcycling and recycling of water streams and chemicals. In the future, we want to grow in the highly emerging markets with our products.
We’re also working on another upcycling solution for the green roof industry. Our engineer is now currently doing PhD research for turning other waste materials into a product to increase the green roof-sustainability and increase water retention. Currently, in the city you see a lot of flats and consequently a lot of water problems. By increasing the water holding capacity of a green roof you can decrease those risks.
So that’s what we are doing in a nutshell.
WUNDERDING: What led to the idea behind Act&Sorb?
Kenny Vanreppelen: So, I started a PhD in 2008 on the upcycling of waste materials and biotechnology of pyrolysis with a focus on activated carbon. I finished it in 2016 and at the end of my PhD, when I was renovating my house, I was confronted with my own waste. At that time, I assumed that it was recyclable. But after a few weeks I discovered that the fibreboard waste wasn’t recyclable, so I combined my knowledge of my PhD on activated carbon and my own waste and after a few experiments I noticed I had something incredible in my hands and that’s actually how it started. So, it started from PhD research, my interest in engineering and my interest in entrepreneurial business development. The proof of concept was ready in 3 months and that was really amazing.
WUNDERDING: Coming from a science background, what helped you during your transition from working in a lab to developing a product and finally building up a business around it?
Kenny Vanreppelen: That’s a good question, because in Belgium, since 2004, which is when I started my engineering studies, we were strongly encouraged to develop soft skills and we had courses for business development too. So, there were some courses that pushed you towards that solution.
And when I started my PhD in chemimsty, the first thing I did was develop a techno-economic model to calculate, based on my assumptions, if a factory would be commercially viable. I selected a lot of waste streams in Belgium, I did some preliminary experiments and I put those results in my techno-economic evaluation. Then I just looked into a lot of waste streams and possible barriers to implementation. And so I narrowed it down. So, I had a very good idea about how to start. I even won a prize with it in my first year of my PhD. In the chemical industry when I presented it everybody was like, “Oh, he started with economics to develop something in the circular economy”. And that was a real revolution. So, even then, at that stage I was already working towards a business development. I didn’t know that at the time but after a few years, looking back at it, I was already starting, I was fairly engaged with the industry.
Also, when I developed the technology, the first thing I did was look for my team and my two co-founders, those were the guys I met in the industry during the first years of my PhD. We had very good connections and they have 30 years of experience in the industry of big pharmaceutical and chemical factories. They have worked in management positions – they started from the bottom layer and worked themselves up to the top layer, so they know how to develop a company. And that combination is very wonderful. In addition, we were selected by the European business accelerator InnoEnergy at the beginning , and we got a lot of feedback from them, a lot of coaching, and a lot of sessions with them to develop our business skills. So that’s how it grows on you.
WUNDERDING: What have you been doing at Act&Sorb so far and what are your next big steps?
Kenny Vanreppelen: I was working in the lab at the start of the company in 2015. We developed our internal prototype, which was a continuous prototype that can run for a few kilograms an hour, for 24 hours without stop if you like. In May of this year, we did industrial demonstration tests. We scaled the technology to 150 kg an hour to prove the scalability, and we proved that our internal prototype has the same results and has the same “work-ability” as the industrial scale. And from the demo installation that we used, we can just scale up to three tons per hour per installation. So, at this moment, we are actually ready to go on to the next stage and to set up the first commercial installation. We’re aiming to set up a three ton per hour installation, so three tons of waste fibreboard per hour, and by the end of 2019 we want to start it. So that’s the next step, getting the capital and the suited project partners for that.
WUNDERDING: Looking for funding is one the most important tasks for every founder. What is your approach towards this?
Kenny Vanreppelen: The way I describe it is, you’re on a football pitch but there’s not one ball but you have ten balls and you need to kick all balls up in the air and no ball can fall. That’s what I’m doing. When you start a start-up, you need to be very adaptable, you need to be very quick and you need to work on all areas at the same time. Of course, the main focus at this moment is finding the right partners, but I am still working with the engineer in the lab and I’m coaching him to even increase our quality. We are already at a high level but we always strive to go higher. So, my main focus is the business development together with my other two partners and we’re going through Europe and visiting project parents, visiting events like this, just to get to know people and to write our business plan and elaborate the business plan – always taking the next step, and always working towards the end goal. If you’re only focusing on one part, you’re going to fail because you can work very hard on business development but if your technology is not yet at that level, you’re not going to go far. You have to do this all the time with all the levels of everything in your company. Your business plan is the most fundamental aspect of your company together with your technology. Website development is important too in order to attract external parties, because you cannot do everything on your own. In the beginning you can, but now we’re facing that we need to attract experts in different fields, from marketing, to legal, to every part. And so you grow your company in that regard – a lot of advisors, you meet a lot of interesting people and it’s wonderful to see that a lot of experts in the field are willing to help you, they want you to succeed. Not for their own but they want that an entrepreneur succeeds in their story, and so if you ask and if you’re open to it, they will help you. That’s for sure.
WUNDERDING: Do you have someone in your family with an entrepreneurial background?
Kenny Vanreppelen: My father was just a hard-working Belgium guy, my mother is just the same, working for a company. There was nobody that was an entrepreneur or a business guy or whatever. So, I don’t think that that’s the key. Even at the end of 2014, when I had the idea, I was still thinking that I was going to work as a research manager or R&D specialist in a big company. And in just in one month I changed completely, my whole situation and my whole life just switched and that was the goal that I wanted to do: we’re going to do an entrepreneurial start-up and we’re going to succeed in that. So, coming back to your question, there are no entrepreneurs in the internal circle of my family.
WUNDERDING: What is your personal vision for you and your company?
Kenny Vanreppelen: If you found a start-up, especially in clean-tech, you need to build a big factory. It’s not that you need two laptops and you can make an app of it – you really need a big facility for one plant. One of my advisors pinpoints it every time, if you want to succeed you need a mission, you need ambition and you need a strategy. To answer your question: yes, you need a mission. Our mission is to develop recycling technologies for non-recyclable waste and to enable them to be used in the highest cascaded way possible, in the highest value possible, to achieve a circular economy. So that’s our mission, our ambition. We’re going to do it by developing recycling technologies for those waste streams and our strategy is that we want to grow and we want to scale. And those pinpoints are the three major things of a scalable company.
Let’s take a cultural look at it, as Belgians, we’re always very humble and small. So if you ask me “What do you want? Do you want to be the CEO of more than 100 people?” – as a Belgian I have problems with that. We want to build our business one step at a time!
But even above that level, we want to scale our technology, because we know that they can disrupt such a large field. For instance, fibreboard is such a wonderful product – they use residues from the sawmill industry that would not be used otherwise. They make products out of it, we can use it for so many applications but at that point it ends. Ten years later it’s a waste. So, by upcycling that, you increase the lifetime of the original “tree”. So, our goal is to scale around the world, to build our first factory and then go further. And if it’s in licensing or building our own companies, let’s take the bulk of that and see how we can scale fast and let’s see what is best for us, so that we can enable new technologies and enable third parties to benefit from it. That’s our goal, our mission.