“The milestones and professional growth I've achieved in this role are above and beyond what I could have accomplished in academia within the same time frame.”
Fiberight is a UK- and US-based small and medium-sized enterprise that’s developed technology to recover value from municipal solid waste (MSW), rescuing it from landfill and incineration. The company also recovers traditional recyclables like rigid plastics, metals and glass and two organics streams: paper waste and food waste to put it to better use. The food waste is solubilised and processed through anaerobic digestion to produce energy and clean water, while the paper is broken down to sugars via enzyme hydrolysis – sugars that can then be used to make bio-fuels and bio-chemicals.
The senior technical lead from Fiberight, Dhivya Puri, joins Bio-Based World News for the latest 5 Minutes With… ahead of the company building its first commercial plant that’s due to become operational by around January 2019. In the interview Dhivya gives fascinating insights on how she made the move from the lecture hall to the office, the opportunities facing the bio-based industry as she sees them and why this industry can sometimes be a little messy.
Dave Songer (DS): Up until joining Fiberight you primarily worked for educational institutions, did you find the transition into a company structure a smooth one?
Dhivya Puri (DP): I found the transition quite natural. I had been previously worked in research or R&D in both industry and academia and I sort of fell into a PhD, which was sponsored by @fiberight. Upon completion of that in 2014 the transition through to working for Fiberight seemed like a natural fit – it’s not often one gets the opportunity to develop a process in their PhD and then see it through to a commercial reality.
Since working in the bio-based industry I’ve realised there are many industrial barriers and concerns which one isn’t aware of in academia. The pathway from academic discovery through to commercial reality is a long one with a many hurdles to consider in addition to the technology.
DS: Indeed. Can you give some details about your role and what you most enjoy about it?
(DP): I’m the senior technical lead for Fiberight and although it is primarily a technical role, due to the small size of the company I have the opportunity to be involved in other business development activities also – you pitch in where you can. I manage all of our organics-related R&D activities including the running of our UK R&D pilot facility. This role also includes looking after our IP portfolio, developing new project ideas to optimise or increase the value of our process and the development of relationships with potential offtake partners.
I really enjoy my work, every day is different and challenging – it’s almost like a hobby. We have developed a process that has the potential to revolutionise the bio-based industry and also deliver a completely new concept for the waste industry, allowing for the recovery of valorisation of over 80% of the materials in MSW. Thus, I find this line of work very fulfilling even if I do end up covered in waste sometimes!
DS: What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
(DP): Towards the end of my PhD I had to choose whether to stay in academia or move into industry. Up until that point I had spent a greater amount of time in academia than industry and I guess Industry seemed like a big unknown and I was unsure if this was the path for me. In the end I am really glad I chose to go into industry, I believe the milestones and professional growth I've achieved in this role are above and beyond what I could have accomplished in academia within the same time frame.
DS: What do you think will be the biggest changes in the bio-based/renewable industry in the future?
(DP): I think that depends on how far in the future you mean. For the more immediate future I think there’s a growing consumer awareness and push for more sustainable and renewable products. Unfortunately the production volumes and cost of bio-based/renewable products do not match with consumer expectations or consumer affordability.
As for long-term, the biggest changes will be bringing down the cost. There have been a number of failures in the industry but hopefully this means that the next generation of technologies/products will be cost-effective as they are able to build on the technological and commercial advancements made by those who have failed in the past. For example, we’re currently developing a pathway to convert our sugar into a particular chemical product. For this we’re able to draw on expertise that’s been developed over the last 15 years but hasn’t yet been successfully implemented in industry. Due to the use of waste as a feedstock rather than other biomass sources we should be able to reduce a number of input costs including biomass and energy. This, combined with the advancements in the chemicals’ production, will increase the financial viability of the product and hopefully allow for commercial exploitation in the near future.
DS: What advice would you give someone looking to begin in the bio-based industry, given that you were once in that position?
(DP): Develop a product that people want, form partnerships/relationships with end users and work towards producing something that they need, not something you think they need. This can be achieved through small-scale proof of concept testing and relationship building within, for example, grant-funded research projects. An established relationship goes a long way to pulling a concept through the stages of development and getting confidence from investors or assessors of grant applications.
DS: What do you think are the biggest opportunities and challenges for the bio-based industry?
(DP): The biggest opportunity is probably the shift in mind-set of large companies such as Unilever, Pepsico, IKEA and Lego towards wanting more bio-based and sustainable materials within their products. This will hopefully create many opportunities in the industry moving forward.
The challenge is coming in at a lower cost than fossil based materials. I believe those costs will come down as the second, third and fourth plants come online for a particular bio-based product. The first plant is always the most expensive and needs the highest revenue – capital expenditure and ongoing costs will come down as subsequent plants come online. Those other plants will be developed if the large companies mandate more sustainable/renewable inputs, as this will create a market. In turn it will also provide increased comfort for investors in these bio-based products.
DS: You attended World Bio Markets this year didn’t you? How was that?
(DP): Yes, that’s right – I spoke as part of a panel on the challenges of scale-up. I thought the show was an excellent networking opportunity and it enabled me to meet and speak with a number of potential collaboration partners within the industry, which is a great opportunity.
DS: And finally, is there a bio-based product we should keep our eyes peeled for?
(DP): One that springs to mind came last year, when I saw @Unilever present on the development of a cell signalling compound that stops the formation of bio-films, thereby keeping surfaces relatively clean of bacterial growth. This technology could revolutionise materials and products development and increase the longevity or decrease the maintenance requirement of materials/surfaces, especially those that are in constant contact with water.
DS: Thanks very much for your time this week, Dhivya.
Read the last 5 minutes with… Bruno Rudnik, Managing Director at SusTech Consult.
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