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BBSRC Networks help Holiferm turn greentech breakthrough into growing business

University of Manchester spinout Holiferm (ref 1) is justifiably upbeat about the future. Its novel method for making a key ingredient of everyday household products avoids fossil fuel-based feedstocks. The resulting ingredient is both biodegradable and low in ecotoxicity – opening pathways to major global markets. It’s taken just eight years to get here, driven by the energy and ingenuity of PhD student Ben Dolman and his supervisor Dr James Winterburn. BBSRC Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (NIBB) helped them develop contacts that proved crucial to this classic clean-growth success story, which now includes a strategic agreement with one of the world’s biggest chemical producers.

Key impacts

  • Innovative lower-cost process for turning renewable feedstocks into biodegradable surfactants successfully brought to market.
  • The NIBB provided targeted support at critical points in the emergence of Holiferm, the spinout created from the breakthrough.
  • Over £1 million of investment already secured in the company.
  • Rapidly growing workforce, with 14 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs and rising at the Manchester/Daresbury-based firm.
  • Holiferm set to reach industrial-scale production capacity in 2022, providing a significant, environmentally friendly boost to decarbonisation of the chemicals sector.

Small beginnings, big benefits

It started with a molecule. But this particular molecule had huge promise. “I’d just taken up my first academic position in 2013, at the university’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science and was about to start supervising my first doctoral student,” James Winterburn recalls. “Ben Dolman was looking for a promising topic for his Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded PhD. I’d worked on biosurfactants before, and I knew they’d fit the bill.”

Producible from sugars and vegetable oils, sophorolipid biosurfactants can be used as a surface-active ingredient, or ‘surfactant’, to reduce surface tension in liquids. They offer a biodegradable, low-carbon, skin-friendly alternative to crude-oil-based surfactants used in cleaning, personal care and many other products. “Because of their clear environmental advantages, there’s a big potential market for sophorolipid biosurfactants,” says James. “What was needed was a cheaper way of producing them. That’s the challenge we set out to tackle.”

Process progress

The starting point was the tried-and-tested technique of yeast fermentation. Ben and James wanted to speed up the process and boost productivity by minimising bottlenecks caused by the biosurfactant accumulating and clogging up the system. To achieve this, they devised a technique harnessing gravity to separate out the biosurfactant as it was produced. As well as using less energy than existing methods, this doubled production rates to around 5g per litre per hour in a 2-litre bioreactor. The commercial potential was obvious. “Right from the outset, Ben showed a lot of entrepreneurial awareness,” James comments. “By 2015, we were already talking to the university’s Intellectual Property service about patents”.

Forging contacts, forming a company

Now the pace really started to ratchet up. “We’d got an idea and a prototype,” explains James. “But there was plenty to do to convince others that our process was worthy of interest and investment. Above all, we had to demonstrate scalability and replicability beyond our lab. We needed the right help and support – and the BBSRC NIBB provided the perfect vehicle for this.”

The NIBB boost interaction between academia and industry. Ben and James’s first application was to BioProNET, which provided a Business Interaction Voucher enabling them to work with an industrial partner. “Ben spent a month at our partner’s lab, fine-tuning our process, developing a more robust version of our separator and, just as importantly, building relationships and trust with the scientists there.”

Next came proof-of-concept funding from FoodWasteNet. This enabled further technical refinement plus testing of a range of raw materials in collaboration with a biosurfactant producer. With a British Council travel bursary also in place, Ben travelled to a production site in India, where the new process was demonstrated at a 150-litre scale, and to the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati to explore different technical possibilities. A travel award from another NIBB, P2P (Plants to Products), paved the way for Ben to undertake similar explorations at the Netherlands’ Technical University of Delft.

While relatively small, the NIBB awards came at critical junctures in terms of building credibility and opening up options for the future. With Ben now finishing his PhD, this paved the way for the next big step. In May 2018, student and supervisor formed Holiferm and James took a year’s sabbatical in 2019-20 to focus on the new business.

In numbers:

$41.3 billion the size of the global surfactant market (ref 4)
£1 million the amount of equity funding secured from Holiferm’s first investor
1000 tonnes/year the throughput of Holiferm’s upcoming manufacturing facility
14 FTE the number of jobs already created by this start-up company
£35,000 investment in James and Ben from the NIBB

The business of investment

“The survival of Holiferm depended upon our pitches to investors,” James emphasises. “The fact we’d already collaborated widely and built a network of contacts made our business case much more compelling.” Holiferm entered an entrepreneurship competition run by Dutch chemicals giant Nouryon and, although they didn’t win, this led to Holiferm securing their first strategic investment in 2019: £1 million in equity funding from the ICOS Venture Capital Investment Fund2. Business development gained further traction by working with start-up accelerator Deep Science Ventures and Innovate UK’s ICURe commercialisation support programme. A BBSRC Early Career Innovator award in 2018 added yet another dimension to Ben and James’s profile and credibility – and underlined how far and fast they’d come in an incredibly short time.

Set for success

“Everything’s happened at a million miles an hour,” James reflects. “Commercialisation’s an unrelenting challenge. Big companies aren’t interested in clever ideas that work in a university lab. They want to know you’ll consistently produce exactly what they want in the quantities they need.”

With Ben as CEO, an R&D lab on Manchester Science Park and a 600-litre, 20-25 tonnes/year pilot plant on the brink of commissioning at SciTech Daresbury, Holiferm is now hard at work delivering clean growth and high-value jobs. Next steps include a major recruitment drive and development of a 1000 tonnes/year manufacturing facility (ref 3). Even as this case study was being finalised, German chemicals colossus BASF announced a strategic technology cooperation with Holiferm to develop a state-of-the-art production process for sustainable biosurfactants – clear confirmation that Ben and James have taken the right route in their quest for commercial success.

Final say…

“In just eight years, we’ve learned vast amounts about establishing a business and what that means in terms of making contacts and connections. The importance of the BBSRC NIBB support in helping us do this – and ultimately contribute to UK competitiveness and clean growth – can’t be overstated”

Dr James Winterburn, University of Manchester


References

  1. Holiferm last accessed 8 April 2021
  2. Imagine Chemistry finalist Holiferm attracts funding (nouryon.com) last accessed 8 April 2021
  3. Supported by Innovate UK grants 72657 and 105375
  4. 2019 figure. Source: Allied Market Research last accessed 23 March 2021