The innovation scaling journey was simple | So Good News
As part of Digital Manufacturing Week, the SME Development Summit is an important event for anyone operating as a manufacturing organization with a turnover of up to £100m. Over two days, the conference will cover key strategic, business and technical issues in the manufacturing ecosystem – providing maximum opportunities for networking, discussions and interaction with peers.
Susan Brench, CEO of Starbons, will deliver a keynote address at the SME Growth Summit about the company’s innovation journey. Starbons is a former York University green chemistry company founded in 2012 that became an independent company in 2017.
Starbons produces mesoporous carbons from biorenewable biomass. Simply put, Starbon is like a hard sponge that allows different species to pass through or stick together, so it can hold or separate things without the need for high temperature or pressure conditions.
Educated in physical sciences and chemical engineering at the University of Cambridge, Susan began a 30+ year career in the fine and specialty chemical manufacturing sector. He has also worked in production-focused roles at two of the UK’s largest banks. Susan met Starbons three years ago while doing consulting work through Akemi Associates, a company she founded in 2018.
From talking to Susan, it was clear how passionate she is about using innovation in science and engineering to build a sustainable society. In particular, the “greening” of products and processes, including the evaluation of waste that could otherwise be disposed of. To this end, Susan is also a member of the judging panel for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s annual Emerging Technologies Competition and a business mentor to competition winners.
Based in York, Starbons designs and manufactures products made from bio-renewable feedstocks, providing technical solutions in end-use applications such as gas capture, special separation and encapsulation. In some cases, the products allow for more sustainable processing methods, reduced temperatures and pressures, and reduced processing steps.
Susan explained more about her role as CEO: “When I met Starbons in 2019, I recognized the potential of the technology, but needed business leadership to make it happen. My role at Starbons was to take the company from dormancy to independent commercial success; providing strategic direction, market orientation, management implementation and scale-up, manufacturing and supply chain solutions”.
Describe Starbons innovation journey in three words?
Start – Stop – Accelerate!
What highlights can attendees expect at your keynote at the SME Development Summit?
I will discuss the company’s innovation journey:
- From Insomnia to Commercialization
- Challenges and lessons learned
- Tips and tricks for success
Is sustainability an integral part of Starbons’ overall business strategy?
Absolutely decisive. It is front and center. The name “Starbon” came from Starch and machineGoodplacement. Scientists at York University’s Green Chemistry Center of Excellence turned to finding ways to use the waste.
We strive not only to evaluate waste, but also to minimize the carbon footprint of our production processes. In addition, our technology helps to make other production processes sustainable.
What has been Starbons’ innovation journey so far?
In the last three years we have progressed from bench (lab) scale (grams) to multi kg (pilot plant) scale. Importantly, we focused on two high-value core markets: separation (solid phase recovery) and gas recovery.
For example, in relation to separation, we worked with a company based in the UK to develop a new technique for extracting cannabinoids. This was achieved in one step, and existing techniques include cryogenic freezing, short-path distillation, crystallization and chromatography. These processes are mass and/or energy intensive.
Later this year, we plan to introduce a reusable SPE (Solid Phase Extraction) system that will eliminate or greatly reduce the need for such technologies. An extended prototype is in the design phase for introduction in Q1 2023.
We have just started a 12 month project funded by Innovate UK to further optimize our manufacturing process.
What challenges did you face along the way?
Resources, whether human or cash, are a key issue for startups. Early-stage companies in the science and engineering sector find it difficult to prove technology/products, which may take months or even years to gain traction and thus attract third-party funding. Finding the cash to fund this “proof of concept” and testing marketing effort can be difficult – often it has to come from “bootstrapping”. For example, time spent pro bono in business, personal loans and grant funding.
Grants often require matching funding and thus can be prohibitive at an early stage, especially if CAPEX is required. Once the business case for scale-up from the lab has been established, finding suitable manufacturing assets can be another challenge – especially if the process is so innovative that it cannot “drop in” to existing pilot or contract manufacturers’ facilities. . Thus, it is not always easy to secure early-stage material that is representative of large-scale production.
Another complication is that because Starbons are derived from natural materials, there is inherent variability in understanding; It is very important to determine the impact (if any) of raw material source and grade on the end use of the customer.
Additionally, physical form can play a large role in end-use performance. Often, material testing is expensive for prospects, so the evaluation process for a potential customer should be as de-risked as possible. We need to be mindful of regulatory issues such as REACH and end-use application standards.
What lessons have you learned so far?
During my travels, I asked other manufacturers “why?” I would invite you to ask that question. We have debunked some of the technical “legends” and are now fortunate to have a deep understanding of our raw materials and processes, which has given us a solid set of secret “know-how” beyond our patents to drive us forward.
What advice would you give to small and medium business startups?
- It is very important to identify potential strategic partners and market focus early and be ready to “pivot” several times.
- Finding a customer should be at the beginning of the journey, not the end. However interesting a technology may be academically or scientifically, it must meet a commercial need and face competition (direct or indirect).
- Be prepared to fail fast and consider a minimum viable product or technology and don’t strive for perfection!
- Establishing an advisory board and then formal non-executive directors can be invaluable.
- Working with relevant innovation and industry bodies can be an effective means of accessing accelerator programs and funding opportunities, as well as like-minded organisations, including potential suppliers, customers and contractors.
Participates in Starbons funded venture and investor training programs (administered by KTN, PAPI and LEP). It was invaluable. Low cost/free support available for entrepreneurs. I would advise any micro-business to use those resources to build their reputation, and most importantly, to assess the market potential of their product or service as early as possible. Investors want to see early traction.
At the SME Growth Summit (SGS), Starbons CEO Susan Brench will share the company’s innovative journey from dormancy to commercialization, as well as the challenges faced and lessons learned.