Magic in a green soup

In a lab at Amsterdam Science Park, a green revolution is brewing. 

“When I first heard of this invention – an invention from two professors at the University of Amsterdam – in 2011, it really sounded like alchemy, because it's kind of magic in a green soup,” Photanol CEO Véronique de Bruijn tells I amsterdam. 

The green soup in question is cyanobacteria – single cell organisms that work like plants: by using photosynthesis they use (sun)light to break down carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen, biomass, and specific carbon compounds. And these carbon compounds are the building blocks we need to create things like biodegradable plastic and sustainable detergents, health and beauty products, and even sustainable fuel. 

Photanol's Prodock Amsterdam lab showing cyanobacteria technology in tubes

By using bacteria in this way, it bypasses the resource-heavy processes and fossil fuels currently used by the chemical industry. Photanol’s natural method of creating carbon compounds paves the way for a circular chemical and fuel industry.

Named a technology pioneer by the World Economic Forum, Photanol is now in the scale-up phase. It has a pilot plant in Prodock and an industrial pilot plant in Delfzijl, in the northeast of the Netherlands, which is approximately 100 times the size of its pilot plant.

The industrial pilot plant is where Photanol is fine-tuning the optimum balance between investment and returns for commercial efficiency. 

From campus to company

Photanol scientist at work

Photanol’s technology is the brainchild of two University of Amsterdam professors, Joost Teixeira de Mattos and Klaas Hellingwerf. They combined their knowledge on fermentation and cyanobacteria to develop the idea of cell factories. De Bruijn explained: “The University of Amsterdam decided to file a patent on that concept. But of course, since they were both lecturing professors, they did not have time to really develop a company around it. So then we got in contact in 2011.”

At the time De Bruijn was working for ICOS Capital, an Amsterdam-based, cleantech venture fund, supporting the development of early-stage technologies and getting them to market. “So together with UvA ventures, we could spin this company out of the university in 2012. In 2013, the first handful of people were hired,” she said.

Over time the company outgrew the boundaries of the campus. “By now, we are around 35-40 people, mostly still dedicated to the technology side, but three of them [work on] commercialisation [as] there is now movement for the technology going to the market. It's not a quick thing because this is such a major breakthrough if we ultimately get there. It really needs time and a lot of expertise.” 

The cradle of the invention

And expertise is where Amsterdam excels. De Bruijn is enthused about the city. “What does Amsterdam give us? Of course, it gives us the cradle of the invention. Also, it gives us one of the leading institutes: UvA SILS Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences, in Amsterdam Science Park. On a global scale, I would say it's recognised as one of the, well, let's say 10, but maybe one of the five top institutes on this.”

What also makes Amsterdam a great place for Photanol is its ability to attract global talent, thanks to its renowned universities and research centres, as well as its famed quality of life.

“It helps us tremendously to attract high profile candidates, really,” De Bruijn said. “If we file a job vacancy on the internet or LinkedIn, we receive letters from all over the planet. Our team consists of 11 nationalities – and the Dutchies are wildly outnumbered.” 

De Bruijn added: “The fact that they land in an international community makes them feel at home. And that helps tremendously to attract people, but also to retain people.” The website biographies of Photanol’s engineers, researchers, chemists and analysts shows many started as interns and stayed, evidently committed to the project.

Strategic and supportive partnerships

Photanol Delfzijl demo site

Next to this, the collaborative spirit among institutions, startups and corporations in Amsterdam has supercharged Photanol’s growth. By forming strategic partnerships with Corbion and Nouryon, Photanol was able to prove the natural production of organic acids and move forward with scaling these processes at its Delfzijl plant. In addition, Photanol partners with thermoplastic film maker Renolit to develop ethylene and propyelene.

Business Development Manager Joppe Verbokkem said: “We are dependent on those kinds of partners, for our research and development and our progress. So it's very useful to be in such an environment here in the Netherlands to be in close contact with those partners.”

De Bruijn agrees. Being embedded in the ecosystem brings multiple benefits, from collaboration to grants, or just sage advice from companies further along the scale-up journey. 

“For example, [renewable chemistry firm] Avantium is a really good role model in what we do, and we really are guided in an extremely beneficial way on how to go down this innovation path,” De Bruijn said. “Literally, we sit down with the CEO Tom van Aken and – although he's an extremely busy guy –he takes the time to be a sounding board and to also warn us for pitfalls and learnings. There's a whole ecosystem of internationally successful scale-ups that are in and around Amsterdam.”

Photanol has a vision for its own international success. It believes its clean technology will revolutionise the most polluting industry on the planet. Luckily, in Amsterdam, the conditions are ripe for such a revolution.

Read more about the cleantech industry in Amsterdam or read more interviews with Amsterdam companies.