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October Edition 2023

An Innovator Paving the Way for Sustainable Industries: Nordic Bioproducts Group

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Innovation in cellulose is extremely significant for sustainability across industries. The most common natural polymer, cellulose, has a wide range of ecologically friendly uses. Plastics made from petroleum can be replaced with cellulose-based materials like nanocrystals and nanofibers, minimizing their adverse impact on the environment. In contrast to single-use plastics, cellulose-based packaging extends shelf life and is biodegradable. Cellulose is used in environmentally friendly textiles like lyocell and viscose, whose qualities are continually being improved. Cellulose has numerous uses in biomedicine, including tissue engineering, bandages for wounds, and medication administration. It also serves as a good feedstock for biodiesel and biogas, promoting the use of renewable energy. Carboxymethylcellulose and other cellulose additions in the food sector give food products stability. Membranes made of cellulose are used in water filtering to meet the need for clean water, and cellulose-based materials can help clean up environmental disasters like oil spills. Products made of cellulose in agriculture help with soil enhancement, erosion prevention, and biodegradable mulching. In conclusion, cellulose innovation promotes a greener and more environmentally conscious future by encouraging sustainable practices, reducing dependency on non-renewable resources, and addressing major environmental concerns across multiple sectors. Globally there are various companies innovating with cellulose and delivering outstanding results, but Nordic Bioproducts Group Ltd stands out from the rest.

Welcome to this interview with Olli Kähkönen, the Co-Founder, CEO, and Chief Innovation Officer of Nordic Bioproducts Group (NBG). Founded in 2019 as a spin-off from Aalto University, NBG is a new trailblazing force in cellulose innovation, bioproduct development, and commercialization in the Nordic region. With a mission to create a better world for future generations, NBG collaborates with forward thinking companies, industrial leaders, scientists, and researchers to improve the performance and reduce carbon footprints of existing ingredients and products. And to achieve breakthroughs that can reduce the world’s reliance on virgin and fossil-based resources and achieve new circular solutions.

Today, Olli shares insights into NBG’s journey and its commitment to sustainability and innovation.     

Q. Can you explain your services in brief?

The foundation of Nordic Bioproducts Group rests on three key pillars.

First, our patented, sustainable AaltoCell Technology that unlocks the power of cellulose to create high-value biomaterials with applications spanning pharma, food, supplements, cosmetics, textiles, biocomposites, packaging and beyond.

Second, we have our Bio Innovation Garage (BIG). This is the R&D center where hardcore engineering meets deep expertise in cellulose chemistry. It’s where science, engineering, chemistry, and business converge to push boundaries and pioneer solutions that can make a difference. 

Lastly, our newly established commercial production facility in Finland where we’ll manufacture cellulosic materials using AaltoCellTM, such as our flagship Microcrystalline Cellulose (MCC), the purest and most versatile form of cellulose.

Q. What was the motivation behind starting Nordic Bioproducts Group Ltd?

With almost three decades of experience in the field of innovation, research, and development, I found myself working as an Innovation Catalyst and project researcher at Aalto University’s School of Chemical Engineering. It was here that I had the honor of working alongside Professor Olli Dahl - a distinguished researcher with over 25 years of experience in the field of sustainable biomass refining and cellulose chemistry. Together we shared concerns of global warming and declining biodiversity which we believe could be stopped, or at least slowed down, with smart technological solutions. 

Among Professor Dahl’s research projects, a particularly promising innovation involved using paper pulp as an alternative to fossil-based raw materials across a range of high-value applications. It was this discovery that generated quite a bit of excitement and it inspired us to combine forces and assemble a dedicated team to take Professor Dahl’s hydrolysis innovation further.

For the first time, a novel approach had been unlocked to use cellulose-rich wood pulp to produce Microcrystalline Cellulose and cellulose derivatives, like nano-cellulose, which could be used for many purposes. And remarkably, we had also hit on a sustainable solution in terms of chemicals, energy use and efficiency in process. And after extensive testing and numerous process refinements, we finally found the optimal formula, giving birth to our innovation.

As things go, it was a combination of work and quite a bit of luck that led to the breakthrough and development of AaltoCellTM.  And today, Nordic Bioproducts Group stands as a testament to the power of collaboration and dedication.

Q. The bio-product landscape is dynamic and rapidly evolving. How does Nordic Bioproducts stay at the forefront of innovation, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and adaptation?

The bio-product landscape is ever-changing, demanding a shift towards renewable, bio-based materials. Companies face mounting pressure to transition away from fossil-based resources, reduce reliance on virgin materials, and create circular solutions from waste streams.

Nordic Bioproducts Group serves as a catalyst for this transformation. We stay at the forefront of innovation because our job is to help companies solve the big challenges that they are facing. Working hand-in-hand at BIG our R&D center, we can together accelerate innovation and develop sustainable solutions that leverage AaltoCell technology, MCC, cellulose, and its derivatives. Our team of experts guides companies through research, lab studies, feasibility testing, prototyping, and beyond. We offer a secure environment for collaboration and help companies embark on their sustainable journey and to stay ahead in the evolving bio-product landscape.

Q. Could you highlight a particularly impactful project or product developed by Nordic Bioproducts that demonstrates its commitment to both technological advancement and sustainability?

Related to my previous response regarding waste stream conversion and recycling, we’re all aware of the significant challenges within the fashion industry, particularly the immense textile waste problem. This issue has been a focal point of our efforts. Transforming the traditional linear supply chain of the textile and clothing industry into a closed-loop system involves the utilization of textile waste through recycling. However, the widespread recycling of textiles is hindered by the presence of mixed fibers, presenting a substantial challenge.

One of our notable breakthroughs centers around addressing the intricate issue of polycotton fiber separation. Polycotton, the most prevalent textile blend globally, poses considerable difficulties in recycling and contributes to environmental burdens. Our innovative AaltoCellTM technology has demonstrated its effectiveness in the separation of cotton and polyester fibers. These separated fractions hold the potential to create value from materials that would otherwise be discarded.

Initial tests of our technology have yielded significant success, propelling us to further refine and expand its capabilities. We’re actively collaborating with key stakeholders across the textile value chain to advance this technology and promote sustainable solutions.

We’ve also achieved significant progress in utilizing technology to efficiently process agricultural waste and extract value from it, which we intend to incorporate into our man-made cellulosic fiber processes scheduled for 2024. Stay tuned for more exciting developments on this front.

Q. Do you have any new services ready to be launched?

As a matter of fact, I’m delighted to share that in early 2024, we commence commercial production of cellulosic materials, including microcrystalline cellulose, at our new production facility in Finland.

Q. What does the future hold for your company and its customers? Are exciting things on the way?

As a young company with a profound mission, we’re energized and inspired by the global interest in our work. From licensing our AaltoCellTM technology, to collaborations in R&D and process development facilitated through our Bio Innovation Garage (BIG), not to mention the commercial availability of MCC, companies are recognizing Nordic Bioproducts Group as a valuable collaboration partner, propelling innovation toward a more sustainable future.

I’m also happy to announce that we recently secured substantial investment to fuel our journey forward, and we believe this is just the beginning of an exciting chapter in our growth.

“We’re at the intersection of hardcore engineering, science, cellulose chemistry, and business, making us the perfect partner for forward-looking companies seeking to accelerate the development of bold circular solutions that generate true environmental, social, and economic impacts.”

“We offer a secure environment for collaboration and help companies embark on their sustainable journey and to stay ahead in the evolving bio-product landscape”.