Naturbeads: redefining microplastic alternatives

University spin-off pioneers sustainability with cellulose microspheres, combatting microplastics in paints and coatings.

Environmental consequences of microplastic pollution

Plastic pollution, both on land and in our oceans, has reached disturbing levels, affecting ecosystems worldwide. Of particular concern are microplastics, tiny plastic particles less than 5mm in size.

A recent study presented by Environmental Action, and reported by the World Economic Forum, indicates that previous estimates of paints contribution to microplastics were vastly underestimated.

It had been previously reported as 10% of a total 1.5 million ton per year however the actual numbers are closer to 58% of 3.5 million tons.

These microplastics not only pollute the environment, but they are mistaken by fish for plankton and in this way are able to enter the human food chain. In recent years microplastics have been found in lungs, blood, placenta, and breast milk, with consequences to human health that have not yet been fully evaluated or understood.

Renewable and biodegradable solution

A spin-off from the University of Bath, Naturbeads, is spearheading efforts to scale up the production of cellulose microspheres as a viable substitute for microplastics commonly found in everyday products.

Cellulose is a natural product, derived from trees, and offers a renewable and completely biodegradable solution that is also inexpensive and widely available due to the volume produced annually. By replacing microplastics with cellulose microspheres we substitute a polluting ingredient with a biodegradable one, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions generated through plastic production.

Dr Giovanna Laudisio, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and co-founder of Naturbeads Ltd said:

Throughout centuries, humanity relied on wood for tools and construction, only to witness its replacement by plastic in the 20th century, which, despite its widespread benefits, bore negative environmental impacts. As the 21st century unfolds, cellulose emerges as the ambassador of a new era, weaving sustainability and innovation into the fabric of our future.

About the project

Microplastics are ubiquitous to paints and coatings (P&C) as they contribute to better flow and increased volume-loading which translates into reduced costs. But they also contribute to plastic pollution and new legislation could result in a ban on plastic microbeads in this type of industrial application.

Building on previous work, the Smart-funded project aimed to implement two cost-cutting innovations for bead production with a view to achieving a price point comparable with microplastics. This would enable cellulose microspheres to be seen as a viable and realistic alternative for high-volume, lower-value industrial applications, such as P&C.

Testing different cellulose sources

The team at Naturbeads tested different sources of cellulose including one from cotton textile recycling. The ethos behind this were sustainability, traceability but also circularity with recycled cellulose. By designing their own equipment, it has allowed them to optimise the process to reduce costs and increase operating lifetime.

It also ensured control over the process in view of licensing. A patent to protect this new equipment was drafted during the project and filed in November 2023. Results of this project have been implemented first in the pilot plant and now they are working on the demo plant to be built in 2024.

Dr Giovanna Laudisio said:

While Smart projects are very competitive, there are several calls throughout the year that are open to any type of innovation. This flexibility and the timing made it the best option to secure funding and be able to start to work on the innovations we identified in short time.

Impact of the project

It was critical for Naturbeads to reduce the cost of raw materials, production costs, and offer the market a product that could compete in price with microplastics.

With the first production plant (20 tons per year) Naturbeads can offer a product that is competitive with premium plastic used by the cosmetic industry. They estimate, that, thanks to this project and with economies of scale (plant 500 tons per year) they can achieve prices competitive with microplastics used in industrial applications.

Generating employment

For this project three jobs were created: one scientist, one engineer and one technician. All the hires are still with the company as they continue to explore other sources of cellulose for their process. As well as additional process optimisations to reduce capex as they prepare for the next phase of scale up.

Naturbeads is a pre-revenue startup with limited resources to dedicate research and development (R&D). With Smart funding, they were able to hire a chemical engineer to develop a critical piece of hardware. They have now been with the company for almost two years, mastering production processes and membrane technology.

The company were able to extend the contract and visa to continue to work with them as Naturbeads scales up. The engineer’s work was key in the development of a piece of hardware. Not only will this provide an additional source of revenue for the company but also protects them from the risk of their process being reverse engineered.

Securing investment

The possibility to access industrial applications, which together have a market share of £860 million, played a significant role. It helped to secure the lead investor for the next round of funding that the project aims to close in the first quarter of 2024 to build their first production plant.

As a result of the project the spin-off is now looking to close a Series A round of investment with support from current investors and has secured a lead investor. Series A funding represents a significant financial boost for startups, aiding them in growth and scale-up. Currently, a total of £1.3 million has been raised so far for operations, R&D, and scale-up.

Delivering better outcomes

As a beneficiary of Innovate UK funding, Naturbeads receives support from Innovate UK Business Growth. They work with an innovation and growth specialist who supports the company on their growth journey, helping them harness their intellectual property and improve their pitch. Naturbeads also participated in the Global Business Innovation Programme, aimed at helping innovative businesses expand into new markets.

In addition to Business Growth support, Naturbeads is part of the Business Growth Scaleup Programme, which helps the highest potential businesses realise their ambitions. Dr Laudisio has access to the Scaleup Alumni Community, and monthly one-to-one meetings with a coach. The participation in the peer group has been a source of great support for the last two years.

Not only for its practical approach on diverse topics like managing and motivating teams, negotiation, and time management, but also from an emotional point of view. The role of CEO in a startup is often very lonely and the opportunity to share the high and lows with a peer group is extremely valuable.

Find out more

Keep up to date with the latest from Naturbeads.

View the current Innovate UK funding opportunities.

Visit the Innovate UK Business Connect website.

Visit the Innovate UK Business Growth website.

Top image:  Credit: alexkich, iStock, Getty Images Plus, via Getty Images

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