A promising biomaterial called lignin is produced in vast quantities by industry worldwide. Yet, in most cases, it ends up as a waste product. The Hamburg-based startup Lignopure is set to change this situation with self-developed technology that exploits the potential of this renewable raw material. Such a development would go a long way towards a sustainable use of resources.
As part of her PhD thesis at TUHH, Joana Gil, CEO of Lignopure, researched the performance of various lignin in different consumer goods and recognised the potential for life science applications such as cosmetics, food and pharmaceuticals. Her research resulted in several patents for the production of fine lignin particles. She then came up with the idea of exploring a possible business case for this new product and brought Dr Wienke Reynolds (CTO) and Daniela Arango (CPO) on board. Thus, Lignopure’s journey began in 2019.
We wanted to learn more about Lignopure and their idea, what the raw material lignin actually is and what it can do. Daniela Arango, CPO of Lignopure, answered some of our questions.
Daniela, thank you for giving us insight into your work at Lignopure. Could you explain in more detail what Lignopure does and what exactly the biomaterial lignin is?
Daniela: Lignopure produces novel ingredients from lignin, the second most abundant biopolymer on Earth. Lignin comes from plants, for instance, trees or cereals. It gives them structure and provides protection. The molecular characteristics of this biopolymer are reflected in potential functionalities such as UV protection, antioxidation, natural colour and many other interesting capabilities.
Lignin is produced in large quantities by biorefineries worldwide, but remains a little-used material. Lignopure has developed its own technology to convert raw lignin into fine particles that are shaped for inclusion in skincare products such as sunscreens and other cosmetics. Our technology and know-how unlock the potential functionalities of lignin that otherwise remain unfeasible for high-value applications. Lignopure aims to become the main producer of lignin-based ingredients, initially supplying the cosmetics industry. Applications in the food and pharmaceutical industries could be added in future.
Sustainability to us means...
...Bio-based alternatives that are in sync with health and environmental protection, but also valuable enough to bring about lasting change.
What were the three most important lessons you learned from developing the idea to founding your startup in 2019?
Daniela: During our development from a business idea to a functioning startup, we faced important questions that made us adapt and learn. We had to be flexible above all and had to fully reshape our initial vision to make it economically feasible and to cater to the real needs of the market. Creating real value is crucial to bringing a sustainable product to market and we had to learn that also. In our case, we are not simply working with a biopolymer, but a product with functionalities demanded by customers such as cosmetic formulators, manufacturers and the end consumer. Finally, it is important to assemble a strong team with different skills and backgrounds in order to grow and to see things through a different lens.
In 2019, you won the Future Award Hamburg. How did that bring you forward and which institutions in Hamburg supported you?
Daniela: It was a great boost in terms of confidence and recognition from key stakeholders; it expanded our network and gave us access to very good mentors. We also had the opportunity to learn from other successful startups in Hamburg. Many institutions in Hamburg have been involved in our development starting from the Technical University of Hamburg, TUTECH, Startup Port and Hamburg Innovation all the way to IFB, who are our present investors.
How would you describe the team behind Lignopure? What makes you stand out?
Daniela: We are a courageous, determined team and are keen to launch a new kind of material on the market that many others would not even touch. Given the five different nationalities in our team and diverse academic backgrounds, we have achieved a good balance between technical skills and entrepreneurial spirit.
What tips do you have especially for female startup founders in Hamburg?
Daniela: Do not be intimidated and especially not by the bogus claim that women are given more opportunities simply to meet quotas. That is a cheap trick to dent your self-confidence, but which is unfortunately still widespread. We would not have achieved as much and been able to compete with other impressive entrepreneurs without the right skills and determination. Most importantly, trust yourselves and the work you have done. Don't be afraid to demonstrate this and build on it.
And finally, what are your plans for 2022/2023?
Daniela: We are optimising our demo plant, which is already doing production trials. Our goal is to grow and for that we are embarking on our Series A investment round. We want to make our ingredient, LignoBase, market-ready, as it is expected to enter the colour cosmetics and suncare market in 2023. We also want to expand our team and diversify our particle technologies and portfolio.
Daniela, thank you very much for the interesting interview. We wish you and Lignopure continued success with everything!