“Today we can produce PLA directly from glucose, but in the future, we will obtain it starting from organic wastes and, looking more forward, from carbon dioxide”. To say it – in this interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Danilo Porro, professor at University of Milano Bicocca and President of Galatea Biotech, one of the most innovative Italian industrial biotech start-up company. Headquartered in Milan, Galatea has developed a new process to produce PLA from glucose.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
We are experiencing a very difficult period all over the world, due to the spread of the coronavirus. What consequences can this crisis have for a bioeconomy startup?
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books and white papers warning about it. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen. Despite it, I have realized that no one in the world had a contingency plan ready.
The global pandemic is affecting all of our families, our businesses and our communities.
Our priority and main concern in these weeks are the health & safety of our families, collaborators and all of us. Therefore, we are taking every measure to protect them and meet all public authorities’ requirements. We are monitoring in real time the COVID-19 situation and will take all appropriate actions – in line with the evolution of the authorities’ guidelines. In March and April we stopped any activity and we switched all activities that could be performed remotely. We are in constant contact with our clients, but the consequences for a small start-up are dramatic. We also have a small team planning potential new ways to work once we can be back in the labs and offices and we are looking forward. In this respect, economists say it will take time to get back to full employment and unemployment is forecast to go into the teens. In this scenario, the ability of SMEs, all the SMEs and particularly those focused on Health, Environment and Circular Economy, more than that of corporates, to hang on will determine how healthy and fast the economy will be.
What is Galatea’s main business?
In quite general terms, our main business is a contribution, even if small, to the development of a Carbon Neutral planet. Human activity has released more than 2 trillion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere since the start of the First Industrial Revolution. Over three-quarters of it is carbon dioxide. This is more carbon than nature can re-absorb, and every year humanity pumps more than 50 billion metric tons of additional greenhouse gases into the air. We definitely need to go back to a Carbon circularity, like it was before the first industrial revolution. Furthermore, it has been recently showed that the uptake of carbon into Earth’s intact tropical forests peaked in the 1990s and the capacity of both African and Amazonian tropical forests is decreasing over time. The earth overshoot day lands each year closer and closer to the beginning of the year, being July 29th for the year 2019, the earliest ever, when humanity has used its natural resource budget for the entire year. Therefore, tour main business looks over the bioeconomy sector.
Furthermore, in these terrible days, sensors on board of satellites have detected the progressive reduction of the red cloud of nitrogen dioxide, the harmful gas emitted by fossil fuels, in particular by motor vehicles and industrial structures. From industries to road traffic, the sharp decrease in work activities for the Coronavirus emergency has “cleaned” the skies of our countries. The levels of smog were strongly lowered, and air pollution is attributed to approximately 4.5 million premature deaths worldwide every year. Actually, this is not a positive factor. Pollution has been just diluted, not erased like people is induced to think, confirming once more how important is to take care of our single and finite planet.
Said all this, the main contribution of Galatea’s today is the development and production of bioplastics, whose unique characteristics allow to replace in a sustainable way the conventional plastics of petrochemical origin. More in details, Galatea Biotech developed a process (patent pending) for the production of PLA from yeasts, directly from renewable sources, without any chemical approach and preserving carbon emissions. Today we can produce PLA directly from glucose, but in the future, we will obtain it starting from organic wastes and, looking more forward, from carbon dioxide.
We are also focused on the development of 100% bioplastic. Today, the processing of bioplastics requires that they have characteristics and performances suitable for the end use. This means a modification of the biopolymers by means of the compounding technique, which involves blending different percentages of additives to obtain the characteristics of the desired material. This is true also for biodegradable bioplastics that can contain up to a maximum of 5% of non-biodegradable material, with a maximum threshold of 1% for each different additive (therefore the maximum can be 5 chemical additives of petrochemical origin). The result is that these bioplastics are not 100% biodegradable and/or 100% biocompostable. The products we intend to obtain do not simply have to be 100% performing, 100% compostable and 100% biodegradable. We believe that these characteristics, although fundamental, must also join functionality, original design, rethinking and strong personality; in other words, thanks to their unique identity, the biobased products must interact emotionally with the consumer. So particular attention will be paid to the details. Finally, and in the same respect, we want to develop bioprocesses for enhancement of traditional and new bioplastics at the end of their life.
How can a SME compete in a sector dominated by big corporations?
In a sense, there is no any competition with big corporations, and not because we believe to have unique, excellent, the best, and the smartest business approaches for our businesses. Instead, we would like to have stronger interactions with big corporation because we saw all this as a complementary and a required step to get our main goal. Indeed, technological startups like Galatea are seen as an important external resource with a view to open innovation linking research to markets needs. On the other side, we do see other small start-up and spin-off companies as competitors. However, also in this case, what is important for the planet is to have successfully stories, independently from their origin.
Galatea is a university Start-up. What is needed at system level to encourage the growth of a start-up, from your point of view?
The environment where you work must be hospitable for innovation, otherwise innovation will develop elsewhere. Galatea Biotech is based in Lombardy at the University of Milano Bicocca. This is a young and quite active University. At least at national level, Bicocca is recognized as one of the best University for the valorization of new knowledges, also in terms of technology transfer. As sake of example, our CEO, Emilio Sassone Corsi, on 2018 bought from the University of Milano Bicocca a patent portfolio for more than 1 million euro. This is one of the highest PI sales at public level in Italy and probably in Europe. This patent portfolio belongs now to Glass to Power (Emilio is the CEO also of this start-up based in Bicocca). The interaction with the University is straight and fast. What I do appreciate is that any interaction is directed to solve problems and not to preserve a position or the status quo. This is the ideal situation because, in a sense, there are no “step-backs”, but instead a “continuous evolution” in a highly focused, highly inter-linked fashion.
However, if I can anticipate your question, this is not the picture I could drop for any University in the Country. It is important to link who produces new knowledge and new technology with who requires new knowledge and new technologies. It is a question of culture and you can not buy it.
Generally speaking, it is important is to have an entrepreneurship education. It is not easy to move from a spin-off to a startup and further to a scale-up without a clear business and financial vision. Having at system level a supporting ecosystem that provide such needs would help, so the rise up of the Digital Innovation Hubs (DIHs) that elevate the approach since now held in the business incubators/accelerators and that act as a 360 degree environment supporting the startups SMEs in their growth is mandatory.
What are your next steps to grow the business?
Whatever is the strategy to accomplish our main business, clearly it requires both adequate structure and organization. More in detail, the penetration speed of our activities towards a bio-based economy will depend on the scientific and technological developments we will get. All this involves closely collaborating persons of different inter- and multidisciplinary backgrounds. We own important PI (patent pending) and we are developing other PIs. To speed up the unleashing of the potential of Galatea Biotech, it is our intention to engage new high profile personnel and to increase its capital. In this respect, the specific role of the CEO and his work with the CSO, Paola Branduardi, covers great relevance.
However, before anything else and more importantly, we all have to win the battle against COVID-19 outbreak first, because there is not a dilemma among saving lives or saving jobs.