Nature’s Principles: driving sustainable lactic acid production

By Mina Nacheva - “We are an impact company and want to contribute to the European goals for becoming more sustainable and circular. We want to have a positive impact on the economy.” Jules Rombouts is CTO of Nature’s Principles, a startup from the YES!Delft ecosystem, and together with fellow CEO Jan Pieter van Tilburg, he’s working hard on a technology that would revolutionize the way new chemicals are produced. The goal? To develop and implement fermentation-based production technologies that would replace oil-based chemicals and create improvement in terms of emitted CO2, water and arable land usage.

Market validation and the potential of sustainable lactic acid

For Jules, it all started in May 2019 when he and his previous co-founder joined YES!Delft’s Validation Lab to test the main assumptions of their technology. “We did a lot of customer interviews to understand the potential of the market. Our technology is an innovative one and is able to make lactic acid, among other chemicals in the future, from biomass.” 

The technology behind Nature’s Principles is indeed unique in that it uses biomass, or in this case sugar beet, to produce lactic acid with a much lower carbon footprint. Sugar beet, compared to sugar cane, which is what traditional technologies are currently based on, requires less water for irrigation as well as less land usage. 

Our goal is to increase the use of bio-based resources in order to create carbon-neutral chemicals in the long run.Jules Rombouts, CTO Nature’s Principles

For Jan Pieter, in turn, getting to know Jules and the idea behind Nature’s Principles was a welcome next step in his career. Having worked for years for an oil major in Brazil, he was determined to move away from the industry. “I wanted to make a positive impact on the world,” he says.  

“I was looking for technology with the potential to get involved in and I liked the drive behind Jules’ idea. We decided to team up for three months as a trial, at the end of which we realized that we wanted to continue working together.” 

The rest is history.  

Since Jan Pieter officially joined Nature’s Principles, the team has been scaling up their efforts to choose the right applications for their technology as well as the first customers to help them make the first move into the market. 

“The technology has many applications,” Jan Pieter says. “Lactic acid is a good antibacterial so it can be used in food preservatives, and it is also a potent descaling agent, making it suitable for cleaning products. The biggest market is bioplastics, but that will take more time to develop. That’s our end game.”

About 60% of conventional plastics can be replaced by polylactic acids (PLA), he says, yet producing PLA plastics is still far from being a price competitive alternative for all possible uses. This is something Nature’s Principles are determined to change – and they are well on their way to do so.

A growing team and an expanding technology

Just a few months ago, the team announced securing their first investors and a total amount of 500,000 euros. The funds are being used to expand the team and test a larger scale production in a pilot project in Balk, Friesland. As part of it, the startup will convert European sugar beets into lactic acid, validating its patented fermentation process at a 1,000x larger scale. 

 “Our current team of seven will be working to make this pilot a success and we will be looking to grow to at least 10 people by the end of this year,” Jan Pieter says. This will be necessary if they are to meet the ambitious goals they have set themselves for the future.

The next step following the pilot in Balk would be to build a commercial plant for their technology, “probably in the Netherlands and definitely in Europe.” Both Jules and Jan Pieter are strongly committed to contributing to the European economy and its transition towards circularity, so local production is something that is very important to them.

While they have now launched their technology with a focus on creating lactic acid in a more sustainable manner, there are other biochemicals that can be produced and that hold great potential, too. They will be part of the team’s expansion strategy in the future.

For now, Jan Pieter and Jules are looking to continue validating their technology, build key partnerships and encourage other entrepreneurs to step up and develop more sustainable technologies. 

“We want to encourage people to start businesses that make an impact, especially bioengineering businesses,” Jules says. “We need more people that want to make a difference.”

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