We valorise non-recyclable plastic waste into healthy food complements/solutions, using an insect-based biorefinery
Number of employees: 2, some students, mentors, advisors
Funding raised: ~ €50,000
Revenue (2022): so far we have been bootstrapping as well as relying on grants and awards
Who are you and how are you involved in Norbite?
Hello, I am Nathalie, CEO and founder of Norbite and my background is in chemical engineering with a PhD in biotechnology.
In 2017, I saw the first scientific article showing that insects can actually digest plastic materials and since then I was motivated to take this academic curiosity into business reality.
Did you always had the ambition to start a company in that space?
No, on the contrary. As a student courses on entrepreneurship were part of our program, but I thought initially that they would be a waste of time. However, I went anyways and in the end such courses laid the foundation to start Norbite.
So, what is the problem you are addressing with Norbite?
Today, we don’t recycle most plastic waste but instead it ends up as land fill or it is burned for energy recovery, which result in the loss of valuable resources used for plastic production. In addition, incineration of 1 kg plastic waste generates about 2.5 kg of CO2 equivalents and given the huge amounts of plastic we produce every year this hidden plastic pollution has a significant impact on climate change. We at Norbite have the vision that all plastic waste is upcycled instead of being burnt or wasted as landfill.
That is a fantastic goal! And how are you using technology to realise your ambitious vision?
We use insects that can digest plastic waste and transform it into lipids and proteins which are of high nutritional value. We mostly target soft packaging, fibers and complex mixture of different plastics that are otherwise categorised as non-recyclable. In this way we complement existing recycling technologies rather than competing with them. Notably, by up-cycling plastic waste into nutrients we do not only create entirely new value chains but also reduce CO2 emissions by 67% compared to today’s incineration.
So with your insects you are using a biological system to address plastics, which originated from the chemical industry. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to use a synthetic biology or even chemical approach?
No, the digestive track of these insects has evolved to being able to handle highly complex feedstocks and it would be very difficult if not impossible to mimic this efficient microenvironment in an artificial system. Further, even if developed, scaling such a system possess enormous challenges whereas we can simply grow insects on demand.
Talking about scale, as you mentioned there are huge amounts of plastics produced every year which will require solutions at industrial scale. At what scale can your technology be realised and how does the roadmap to scale look like for you?
We have proven our system at laboratory scale and now we are planning a demonstration plant which can transform about 5000 tons of plastic per year. From there we will move into commercial scale with a first plant up-cycling about 60,000 tons of plastic waste each year. To minimise transportation our strategy is to co-locate our plants with existing recycling facilities.
What do you envision to be the biggest challenges on the way to scale?
Besides the technical challenges to scale a new process, we also need to build partnerships with the generators of lasting waste streams and this takes a lot of time and effort. Although a collaboration would be beneficial for recycling plants, they are also taking a risk by allocating time and resources.
In addition, as for any start-up that builds industrial processes substantial investments will be required to finance commercial plants. Just building a larger demo plant will require about €15M in capital.
When you started Norbite in 2020, the pandemic was hitting Sweden which made many things more difficult. What motivated you to work through these difficult times?
What motivates me most are these special first moments, like when you win your first competition, secure your first grant or get your first recognition in the media. These moments are really powerful because they give you something to build on. For us, Venture Cup Sweden created such a moment when we won a price in the category space related technologies. It seems surprising, but while circular economy on earth is a nice-to-have in long distance space travel it is a must-have. This also paved the way for us to become part of the space tech community and even entering the ESA (European Space Agency) business incubator program.
That is quite an unusual route for a recycling start-up. Was there anything particular you took home when interacting with this community?
Yes, this community dares to dream big, like journey-to-Mars big! But on the other hand, they are also working hard on making it happen as soon as possible.
So let’s come back to earth. How far have you come in implementing your technology and what could be a product I could buy at some point in my closest supermarket?
So far, we have developed our biological system to handle different types of materials and we have built a first prototype last year demonstrating the feasibility of our technology. Now, we are continuing our technical development as well as scale-up of our process.
Our platform allows us to transform plastic waste into proteins and lipids which can be used in pet food. Especially, the protein stream has gained interest as alternative nutrient source.
Scaling new process takes always time. What is your best guess of how long it will take until I can buy a product that is based on Norbite’s technology to feed my cat at home?
In a best-case scenario, we will start building our demo unit at the end of this year with a construction time of about 12 months. The material generated by this plant will already be used in commercial applications, so 2025 your cat may get food that is in part derived from plastic waste.
That is really in the near future meaning that it would take Norbite less than 5 year from founding the company to market launch. What do you think makes this accelerated development possible?
I think my background certainly helps as I spent 5 years of insect research and also worked 10 years in the plastic industry. This really helped me to understand this industry with its challenges and opportunities.
A start-up journey can be a quite bumpy ride and maybe even more so as first-time female founder with a technical background. What has been particularly challenging on your journey?
The challenges when starting a company are always immense but you can never pin-point if it was more difficult for me than it would have been for another person. However, when starting Norbite I was quite new in Sweden which made things hard in the beginning. Obviously, there is a language barrier and I had essentially no network that could support me in any way. In addition, it took me some time to understand the Swedish soft funding ecosystem because it is not very open when you come from abroad. However, once you get to know your way around the opportunities are actually quite impressive.
My attitude is that you always need to find your way and if you can’t go through the door then just climb through the window.
That is great advice! Can you share some more key learnings for founders or executives of early-stage deep tech companies?
When running a technology-based start-up, everybody tells you to be strong on the commercial side. While this is of true, I believe first of all you need to be strong on your technology because if your technology is really disruptive, you will have customers.
Secondly, be patient! Building a company takes time and pressure yourself to rush into situations where you feel uncomfortable, like when deciding on taking on which investor to take in.
Finally, dare to dream big when you are young and have less responsibilities! Being young often means you have a higher degree of freedom and you also have more time until you need to be successful.
Thank you a lot for sharing your insights and we are looking forward to follow your development!