Unlocking value from agricultural and woody biomass by using ionic liquids as safe and sustainable solvents
Founded: 2017 in the UK
Number of employees: 10
Funding raised: ~€5M in grants and a convertible loan
Who are you and why did you co-found Lixea?
Hello, my name is Florence Gschwend and I am one of the co-founders and acting CTO of Lixea. I have a PhD in chemistry from Imperial College London, where Lixea (formerly known as Chrysalix Technologies) was founded. During my PhD, I was fortunate enough to see promising results early on, which allowed me to explore different career options, including taking a summer school in entrepreneurship and participating in various business idea competitions. At the end of my PhD, my co-founders Agi Brandt-Talbot and Jason Hallett and I had filed a third patent and decided to build a company around that technology. Starting a company was never a long-term goal for me, but it kind of just happened.
What problem is Lixea addressing and can you quantify it somehow?
The overarching problem is our dependence on fossil resources as our modern society is extremely addicted to crude oil as a source of energy but also for many of our products such as clothing. This dependence on oil contributes to climate change and also causes environmental degradation from oil extraction. In addition, practices such as burning agricultural crop residues in fields contributes significantly to air pollution. You have to consider that there are over 1 billion tonnes of wood and agricultural residues available across the globe every year.
At Lixea, we want to break our society’s dependence on oil by unlocking the value of such agricultural and wood residues. We do this by using ionic liquids to separate different fractions that can be used to create materials or as an energy source. In this way, we hope to valorise these residues and move away from relying on fossil fuels.
If you look at the emerging bioeconomy, there are many companies working with fractionation of biomass. Comparing their approach to your technology, what is unique about your concept?
Many current processes rely on organic solvents, which can pose risks such as high flammability, environmental risks from spillage and waste management, and health concerns for operators due to evaporation. In contrast, ionic liquids are essentially salts that are liquid at room temperature and are therefore safer to work with. They do not evaporate into the atmosphere and can be easily recycled, making them a more economically viable choice. Our process is also quite flexible and with only minor modifications it can handle a wide range of biomass.
Additionally, our process is uniquely suited to handle heavy metal-contaminated wood, opening up the possibility of using it for bioremediation projects. For example, plants could be used to extract heavy metals from contaminated soil, such as land affected by mining, and our process could be used to isolate the heavy metals. Overall, the use of ionic liquids offers a safer and more sustainable alternative to traditional processes that rely on organic solvents.
So you are addressing a huge problem which means you have to realise your technology at industrial scale and you have taken a first step with your pilot plant in Bäckhammar. What do you think will be the main hurdles to scale your technology?
Scaling our technology to an industrial level is certainly a challenge, and our pilot plant is only the first step in this direction. While the process steps are similar to those used in pulp and paper mills, which are already large operations, there are other factors to consider when using biomass as a feedstock. Transportation costs, for example, will be an important factor in determining the radius around a plant that is needed to supply enough feedstock. As such, we are not aiming to process millions of tons of biomass in a single plant, but rather hundreds of thousands of tons per year, which means we do not need to build extremely large plants.
One potential hurdle to scaling our technology is the availability of ionic liquids at the necessary industrial level. While these liquids are not currently available at that scale, the necessary infrastructure and processes are in place to produce sufficient quantities once they are needed. A second hurdle is finding off-take markets for our multiple products. This is something we are working on a lot with a number of down-stream partners and customers.
Like with most new process technologies, you are not directly developing products but provide sustainable materials. What do you think could be a product I can buy at a supermarket that is based on your technology and, in a best-case scenario, when will I be able to buy such a product?
We are looking into valorising our cellulose pulp for moulded fibre applications which can be used in the packaging industry. So if you buy some electronic device the packaging around could be based on our technology. Our lignin can be mixed into resins that are commonly used in furniture like your next wardrobe. Another product from our process is furfural. This molecule can be an ingredient of paints.
In a best-case scenario, the first products will be available after your demo plant is fully operational in 3-4 years. Considering the total time from technology development to market launch, how long did it take Lixea?
If everything goes well it will take us about ten years from incorporation and first R&D scale-up activities to production at scale. In the beginning things could have developed faster if we had had the funding, but a lot is also just construction time – for example the demo plant alone will take about 18 months.
When comparing Lixea to many other start-ups you get the impression that you had quite an accelerated journey. Early on you were successful in start-up competitions and then you won the EIC Accelerator grant in 2019. When looking back, what were the biggest challenges on the way from Imperial College to now?
First, it certainly didn’t always feel like a smooth journey, especially the first few years where it was really just me working full time. Back then, securing funding was extremely challenging as investors in the UK had very little understanding of the potential of biomass-derived processes and there was virtually no government funding available to develop these technologies.
Despite having a low burn rate, we often only had a lifeline of 2-3 months and were frequently in danger of running out of cash. Receiving a grant from the European Innovation Council (EIC) was a game changer for us. Without it, we likely would have run out of money for good and Lixea would not have been able to continue. While the journey has not always been easy, we are grateful for the support and opportunities that have allowed us to keep going and continue working towards our goals.
Given all these struggles in particular early on, what motivated you to keep going?
I think sometimes it’s just very difficult to get out of it. It’s like sunken cost fallacy where you know I’ve suffered so much already if I give up now, all this suffering will have happened for nothing. Sometimes I was almost hoping we would finally run out of money since then I would have had a good reason to stop. But we actually never did and now we have a fantastic team to work with and Lixea has a working pilot plant. So, I am glad that I didn’t give up and am proud of what we have achieved.
Being a founder of a deep-tech company is very challenging. Did you feel that it was even more difficult as a female founder?
To get a company off the ground is very difficult in any case. A bigger hurdle was probably that with 26, I was quite young when I started and with a science background, investors think you have no clue about business. Then you also have the occasional misogyny which obviously doesn’t help and being the only female founder attending conferences that are dominated by middle-aged white men in suites can be a challenge. But you need to find a way to let it not become a problem but turn it into an asset. For example, some programs I participated in where exclusively for women and sometimes you get help because somebody sees themselves as a farther figure.
When you take a look back at what you achieved, what has been your best moment as co-founder of Lixea?
Definitively, when I visited our pilot plant construction site in March 2022, and it looked like a real pilot plant. Especially in the beginning you never really think it’s gonna get that far because you know that the odds are against you. But at the same time you feel like you have to give it a try. So somehow, I never thought I would see the day when the technology becomes real.
Driven by the need for creating a more sustainable society and the wish of doing something meaningful many scientists and engineers take on the challenge to start deep tech-based businesses. What is your key learning for this enthusiastic generation of founders and entrepreneurs?
Although it is very difficult, try not to define yourself too much over your start-up since there is a high risk associated with that like extreme stress levels, anxiety and other mental health issues. Sometimes it’s just worth saying “it’s just a job” and building a sustainable business has to include that it is also sustainable for the people involved.
Thank you very much for this insightful interview!