SCIENCE

University spinout offers biobased binding agent from the Nordic forest for paints and personal care

FineCell just secured funding to scale its technology for which the company also sees ”significant potential” in gas barriers, 3D-bioprinting, and other advanced applications.
By JOHAN MAGNUSSON
December 18, 2023

The race to replace fossil-based ingredients in everyday products is central to many sectors. The chemical complexity of these products means that replacing ingredients requires a clear sustainability impact without compromising performance. 

FineCell is a spinout of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. The startup is using a technology that can turn dry pulp fibre into added-value biomaterial that can be used both as a powder and as a water solution (hydrogel). The materials are made by combining pulp-based cellulose with a natural chemical called oxalic acid that is found in, for instance, rhubarb. It’s producing a new material that can easily be stored in a solid form yet is often applied in a liquid form. The dry cellulose powder, CellOx, can easily carry other ingredients, making it a great binding agent for products such as sunscreens, skin creams, and paints. It’s also transparent, enabling it to be used in a large variety of products, completely biobased, light to ship, and compared to other similar cellulose products, requires 80–90% less energy to manufacture.  

— It’s is based on a new way to convert wood- and plant-based cellulose into a material with valuable properties for paint, skincare, and cosmetics, says Peter Axegård, co-owner and CEO, continuing,

— The world is scrambling to replace fossil-based materials with sustainable ones. Our product, based on softwood pulp from sustainably managed Nordic forest, gives many industries an alternative to the components they are currently using. Our product is made from renewable resources, biodegradable, and safe while fossil-based alternatives are not.

FineCell.

Thin, transparent, and flexible films are another key focus area for the company. Unlike competitors’ offerings, FineCell’s technology provides materials that can be utilised as combinations of many different types of cellulose to produce the desired effect. It’s patent-protected and allows for constant and very energy-efficient change between liquid and solid state. As mentioned, the technology can also be used for applications in healthcare.

How do you work with the beauty and healthcare industry? What do you provide to them? 

— We have established contacts with a number of these companies, Axegård shares. We understand their needs, and they realise that our products have several benefits in a range of applications. Our hydrogel product is a versatile ingredient in personal care formulations as it stabilises emulsions or dispersions, can act as a thickener, and can improve the skin feeling, when lotions and creams are applied. It has the potential to replace fossil-based chemicals that are used nowadays.

Yes, you just secured a EUR 1 million seed funding round by EIT InnoEnergy and Metsä Spring. What are the next steps here?

— We haven’t done any pilot projects yet but we are getting close to that, says Axegård. The next step is to build and operate a demo production plant with a capacity of one tonne per day. The start-up is planned for early 2025. These plans to build a demo production plant have increased interest in working with us, as this shows we are a real opportunity rather than just a possibility. In parallel we work on the commercial side, developing the market for our products.

— Also, even if we today focus on hydrogels for paint, cosmetic, and personal care products, we see significant potential in gas barriers, 3D-bioprinting, and other advanced applications. Here, we welcome collaboration with academia and industry. Bringing our biobased material to more and more sectors would require scaling up production to the point where we are making a large impact on products people use in their everyday lives.

What’s been the most challenging throughout this journey?

— To manage the transition from an academic research-driven company to a technology and market-oriented company. We believe that bringing our products from the academic research level to the market is best done by focusing on the customer. That change, from academic research to creating customer value is probably the most important factor for tech startups to succeed.

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