My name is Marco Astorri, I am 52 years old and in 2007 I created Bio-on, bringing it to great success in just 12 years of hard work.
In July 2019, an American hedge fund, led by an Italian citizen, attacked us and stopped us in less than three months.
Before talking about the world of innovative materials and bio polymers, I will tell you in three articles where my vision and desire to innovate come from.
Marcus Aurelius used to say: “nothing comes from nothing and nothing returns to nothing”.
It takes a lot of courage to innovate, even more so if you are not part of a multinational and if you work in Italy.
It is very important to have a vision that goes “over the hill” and not to stop when faced with any difficulty.
Making your dreams come true is a privilege that few have: I succeeded.
I perfectly remember every step that led me to build the most valuable company in the world of biopolymers: Bio-on.
I started in 2007 in an abandoned rabbit hutch and in 2019, listed on the stock exchange since 2014, we were worth € 1.3 billion.
In a few years we have gone from two employees to 100 in 2019.
We have created value for dozens of companies and for hundreds of people.
As an entrepreneur I was fascinated by the new world of natural materials. It all started by chance.
I had an investment in RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and I was producing millions of transponders.
Ticketing for subways (London), ski areas and parks, as well as transport in the city of Venice.
Today everyone uses contactless.
We were pioneers, we developed IOT (Internet of Things) in the early 2000s.
One day, in 2006, by pure chance the president of an important ski resort told me: “Marco, no more plastic, but no paper either (with snow boards it gets wet and doesn’t work). At the end of the season, we have to collect pieces of plastic all over the mountains. Please find something else”.
This was the fuse, the starting point. I realized that the world of materials was even more important than applications.
The plastic had to be replaced by something else, perhaps with the same characteristics, but no longer polluting plastic.
I left the world of RFID and moved on to research in the field of biodegradable plastic materials in a few days.
My partner Guy Cicognani and I locked ourselves in an office, bought a Mac and started studying.
The budget was very small and the time we had given ourselves too.
We wanted to understand the world of polymers, of bio polymers.
We did a research on all existing start-ups and patents (2007) and got excited delving into PLA (polylactic acid) and starch products, only to realize they weren’t for us.
There was always something that didn’t convince me: I didn’t understand why they were considered green when they were only to a small extent.
Furthermore, the problems were many, but they did not emerge on the market.
One material did not biodegrade in water, others even not at all and particular composting cycles with controlled temperatures and humidity were required.
They were useless.
However, I was convinced that a solution had to exist.
There had to be a product, a scientist and patents somewhere that matched what I was looking for.
What was I looking for?
I was looking for a bio polymer that did not compete with food, that used waste.
I didn’t want to use organic solvents for its extraction, so we had to think about light plants with zero polluting chemicals.
I didn’t want to use antibiotics to manage fermentations and sterilize everything with steam.
Of course, genetic modifications were forbidden, convinced that it is of no use in the world of biopolymers.
Our goal was to control the surface of the polymer, its shape, and have a platform product, similar to the most popular polypropylenes and polyesters.
At the end of its life cycle the product had to be biodegradable in nature without any difficulty and shortcut, it had to biodegrade naturally in water and land.
I still remember the exact moment when I first saw a photo of the PHAs in black and white under a microscope: Incredible!
Here it is the real bio plastic, completely natural, high performance and biodegradable.
I immediately understood that this polymer discovered in France in 1926 was the right bio-polymer.
On this I had to bet my life on, my ambitions.
From here a real revolution of materials had to start.
Studies continued for many months and the PHAs always came out winning when compared with other bioplastics.
There were few companies and start-ups and this meant that it was not easy to produce PHAs.
Metabolix, ICI, Kaneka and many Universities.
Since the 90s with different methods, many have tried to introduce a fantastic product such as PHAs not always with luck, I immediately noticed that the parameters they used were not the ones we wanted.
Suddenly we found the answer to all our wishes: UH University of Hawaii.
In the middle of the ocean, a great Professor, an incredible scientist, had just published a small series of patents that completely matched with our difficult mission: to produce PHAs in a sustainable and circular way.
I called him, introduced myself.
He invited us to Hawaii.
We flew to the Pacific with our lawyer and after a week of negotiations we acquired the rights to this first set of patents that allowed us to set out to create the industrial scale-up.
I still remember the emotion on the way back, with scientific data to be developed and a new world to discover.
A world as I wanted it, without compromise: the creation of a real biopolymer to be produced in order to provide complete solutions …
It was 2008 and in a short period of time we found the financiers for the scale-up, a farmers’ cooperative that had believed in this technology to better employ the by-products of sugar beet.
So, with only a former rabbit hutch as base and a couple of million euros.
We start hiring a few but very good technicians and building the first demonstration plant.
It is a success, everything works at its best and we quickly switch from counter fermenters to fermenters of 80, 100 and 1000 liters.
The whole production is fine-tuned and the work goes on incessantly day and night. Nobody gets tired, nobody goes on vacation.
From 2008 to 2012 it’s a n amazing ride, always faithful to my initial idea: to produce a PHAs from nature and for nature.
The company is based on the IP business model.
The mission is to develop everything in the best possible way and to license it, applications and future productions.
In 2011 WIRED dedicated its cover to us and called us the Google of plastic.
Everyone found out what Bio-on is and what it was developing.
The success was overwhelming and had no more interruptions until the speculative attack in July 2019.
We were incessantly contacted by companies from all over the world.
At the same time, we carried out the detailed design of plants that could provide 5-10 thousand tons per year to be licensed.
Suddenly the sugar crisis, cyclical by definition, hits our main Italian partner.
It is 2013.
The idea of basing everything on the IP business model and relying on industrial applications with the cooperative’s farmers is interrupted.
The production of beets faces serious competition from sugar cane and the crisis is profound.
Without farmers, our strategy had to change.
Something peculiar happened.
We are invited by the editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber and by Lakshmi N Mittal (the president and owner of the ArcelorMittal steel mills) to London for an award ceremony for the most promising companies in Europe.
The awards ceremony was attended by the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
We were the only Italians to compete and our technology aroused great interest.
Dinner was organized by tables and at ours were sitting all the most important banks (not by chance).
All together they explained to us that our project was epochal and needed independence and finance.
According to them, our company was suitable for the AIM market, which is very strong in London, and that evening they asked us to go public.
This column is written by Marco Astorri, Founder and CEO of Bio-on
Postings in this Column
- Have You Ever Planted a Tree? Well, While You Wait For It to Grow, Use Biopolymers Too
- The Sea Starts from your Home
- The Current Situation of Bio-on
- The Expansion of Bio-on
- The Start Up of Bio-on
- New Columnist on Bioplastics News
The opinions expressed here by Marco Astorri and other columnists are their own, not those of Bioplasticsnews.com.