“It is great recognition of where Leaf has got to in the bioeconomy in a very short space of time. It is also recognition of our compelling technology.” Ken Richards, CEO of Leaf Resources, who has been voted by our readers as the most innovative bioeconomy CEO 2016, talks to Il Bioeconomista.
In this interview Richards talks about the achievements of its company, its team and the Australian bioeconomy.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
First of all, congratulations for the recognition as The Most Innovative Bioeconomy CEO 2016. What is innovation in the bioeconomy, from your point of view?
Thank you. I look at the list compiled and see 9 other fabulous companies progressing the bio-economy in wonderful ways led by gutsy, innovative, CEOs and am proud that Leaf Resources is included in such quality company.
Around the world, significant steps are being taken to move from today’s fossil-based ‘black’ economy to a more sustainable ‘green’ economy. The bioeconomy is all about replacing fossil-based chemicals.
In our section of the bioeconomy, the biorefinery process consists of two main parts: pretreatment; the breaking down of the biomass to cellulosic sugars, and fermentation; the conversion of those sugars to valuable renewable chemicals. I find it interesting that some of man’s newest science, DNA and synthetic biology, combines with man’s oldest industrial activity fermentation to provide the new wave of solutions that exist today.
Developments in the bioeconomy are of huge importance to society. The USA academy of Sciences has stated that: “The industrialisation of biology will be as important in the next 50 years to economic growth as semiconductors have been over the last 50 yrs.”
And what is the innovation of Leaf Resources?
Leaf Resources innovation is it proprietary Glycell process which effectively and efficiently breaks down plant biomass into cheap, clean cellulosic sugars and lignin, the engine room of the bioeconomy.
The key to our process is glycerol, a waste product from biodiesel manufacturing. The glycerol delivers outstanding physical results, higher cellulose recovery and much quicker conversion to sugars, but the absolute break through is the ability to recover the glycerol at a higher purity and resell it at a profit.
When the bi-products are added back, Glycell can produce cellulosic sugars at around US$50/tonne compared to other sugar sources over US$200/tonne. Cellulosic sugars are a major feedstock for green, renewable biobased chemicals, bio-plastics and biofuels, products whose markets are multi-billion dollars in value and fast growing. By dramatically reducing the cost of the main feedstock for biobased chemicals, plastics and biofuels, the Glycell process has the potential to change the face of global renewable production.
2016 has been an important year for your company. What achievements do you consider as the most relevant?
When we look back on 2016 there have been three major achievements.
· 5 project agreement with Claeris LLC
· Collaboration agreement with Novozymes
· MOU with the Malaysian government to progress a commercial plant in Malaysia
All three are interlinked. Claeris is a world-class project developer with a proven track record of developing large-scale, financially successful projects. Their introduction to Novozymes led to the collaboration agreement with that company (announced on 7th December).
Claeris’s connections in Malaysia has also led to the acceleration of plans to build a commercial facility in Malaysia. 2016 is very much the year Leaf moved from technology development to commercial development.
One other achievement is also worth mentioning. We lodged a patent on the extraction of silica from rice husk. Initial results show the silica is extracted in a valuable amorphous form and after extraction the biomass is ready for the Glycell process. This is a longer term option but potentially provides a very cheap source of biomass.
What are your plans for 2017?
Very simply, 2017 will be our year of commercialisation. We are looking at a very specific site in Malaysia and more generally in the USA. It is full steam ahead.
Australia’s bioeconomy seems to be underestimated in the global context. What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the bioeconomy in your country?
There are some very interesting things happening in Australia although generally we are behind the USA and Europe. The state of Queensland is very proactive with its bio-futures programme, but other states are yet to really pick up on the tremendous opportunity presented by the bio-economy.
Australia’s strengths are great agriculture and very good logistics from rural areas, on the back of the wheat industry. There is a lot of biomass, a government report estimated that 15 one million tonne biorefineries could be built in temperate Australia.
The weakness generally, apart from Queensland, is a lack of appreciation on the massive benefits to rural areas that the bioeconomy can bring through the location of biorefineries.
What are the main Government Measures to support the bioeconomy in Australia?
Leaf Resources has been greatly assisted by the R&D tax programme, where 42% of approved research gets refunded through the tax system, even for companies that are pre-revenue. In broad terms you get to spend your R&D dollars twice, which is a huge help.
Generally government incentives have been more aligned to biofuels and bio-power and only now are government agencies starting to understand the carbon savings and other benefits of renewable chemicals.
And what is the bioeconomy perception by Australian public?
The public, unfortunately have very little understanding of the bioeconomy. As a publically listed company on the ASX, I am constantly educating potential investors to the opportunity presented by the bio-economy. We are getting there but it is a long road.
What does it mean for you to be voted as the most innovative CEO?
It is great recognition of where Leaf has got to in the bioeconomy in a very short space of time. It is also recognition of our compelling technology.
I also think about the wonderful team at Leaf Resources and know that it is easy to be a CEO when there is so much great talent in the company. I would like to pay particular tribute to Alex Baker, the inventor of the process, who is also very commercial in his outlook. He is an integral part of the team leadership and his name deserves to be alongside mine in receiving accolades for everything Leaf does.