With the support of the first investors - Finland's Technical Research Centre (VTT), Spinnova was founded by Juha Salmela and Janne Poranen in early 2015. Spinnova is a sustainable deeptech company that has developed a disruptive technology for manufacturing cellulose-based textile fibres. Emmi Berlin, head of Communications at Spinnova, discusses the company's goal to industrially scale up its technology to big volumes in joint venture operations with brand owners and raw material providers, in a chat with Paulami Chatterjee.
What kind of study went behind this unique nanocellulose technology? What was the duration of the study and how many people were involved?
The invention was first made by the VTT's (Finland's Technical Research Center) pulp and paper scientist Juha Salmela in 2009. Salmela was inspired by similarities between nanocellulose and spider's web. He thought what if we could imitate this natural process of extruding thin filament with high pressure so that we would not need to dissolve or use dissolved pulp, but instead paper grade pulp. He studied this with his team at the VTT for a few years on a laboratory scale, and in early 2015, he and co-founder Janne Poranen spun the innovation off and started Spinnova. Since then, we have come from laboratory scale to an operating pilot factory and from five people to 35, in just five years.
Has the mass production of your industrial pilot begun yet? What is your business model right now?
We now have proof of concept from our pilot, and are planning for our first commercial factory, so you could say we would be in a pre-commercial stage for another 1.5-2 years. We are working closely with global brand owners on developing products that may be the first commercial products as production starts, and these brand owners hopefully become our first customers. The industrial scaling will be done in a joint venture model with our strategic partners.
By when are products expected to hit the markets?
We estimate that our commercial factory will be in operation and the fibre available in 2022, but this could go faster too. As said, the market is eagerly waiting for this fibre to become available.
Where are your factories based at?
So far we have a pilot factory in Jyväskylä, central Finland.
How do you source your raw materials?
We have a great strategic, industrial partner in one of the world's biggest pulp companies, Suzano of Brazil. The wood we use as our raw material is FSC and PEFC certified, and comes from CO2 positive nurseries. Hence, this feedstock is both sustainable and ample, as Suzano produces more pulp than all Finnish pulp companies in total; some 11 million tonnes per annum.
What innovations are you planning to bring into your business going forward?
We are now focusing on developing our wood-based, sustainable fibre into a commercially viable, drop-in product for brand value chains. Alongside this, we have some exciting waste-based fibre development ongoing, but there is no news we can share about them right now.
Where is the demand for such sustainable clothing coming from? What is the future scope of application?
I think consumers' awareness is growing rapidly, and the demand for sustainable options comes from the consumers; but there is also a need from within the brands to change. There seems to be a lot of market pull for both wood-based and waste-based cellulosic fibre that is produced with minimal water and emissions, and no harmful chemicals.
What are the trends and expectations of people with respect to sustainable fashion?
According to a consumer survey we have made in five countries, yet to be published, we have found that consumers are quite interested in clothing materials, but the awareness of what their environmental impacts are, could be improved. Most consumers seem very keen on new materials, if they save water, waste, emissions and harmful chemicals like ours. Waste-based materials also seem to be very attractive.
Of course we hope that sustainable fashion will be the new norm, with new, sustainable materials scaling up, consumer behaviour changing etc. Our vision is to have Spinnova fibre available for everyone at a reasonable price. If an innovation is a luxury item, it won't have the environmental impact it was intended for.
This article was first published in the August 2020 edition of the print magazine.
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