StartUs Magazine spoke to Jarkko Tuominen and Katariina Kemppainen of Metsä Spring, Metsä Group’s venture capital and innovation arm. Both Jarkko and Katariina head individual projects that contribute to a more sustainable future.
Jarkko is heading a collaborative project with Valmet to develop new 3D fibre products while Katariina is Metsä’s programme manager for ExpandFibre, a joint EUR 50 million R&D collaboration with the Finnish energy company Fortum, with the ambitious idea of lifting the adjunct innovation ecosystem to new heights.
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Jarkko, following our interview in March 2020, Metsä Group has decided to move forward in the collaboration with Valmet and continue the development related to novel 3D fibre products made from sustainably grown Nordic wood. What gave you confidence in this decision?
Jarkko: We have used the past six months to perform a technical pre-study together with Valmet as well as to execute a market feasibility study. These studies left us with promising results and thus, a good reason to move forward with the next phase. At this stage, both Metsä Group and Valmet are very committed to developing the related new technical concept. In fact, both companies recently announced a joint investment of EUR 20 million.
What are your plans to move forward with the project?
Jarkko: The immediate plan is to build a pilot plant with a pilot production line, in Äänekoski, Finland. We expect the plant to be built by the end of 2021 and then to commence with our technical development and testing activities, which will run for about one more year before the next step. By the end of 2022, we will evaluate the concept again and decide whether to move into the demo or production phase or not.
Katariina, you are the Programme Manager of ExpandFibre, another initiative where Metsä Group is a founding partner. What can you tell us about ExpandFibre?
Katariina: ExpandFibre is a EUR 50 million R&D collaboration and an ecosystem launched by Metsä Group Fortum and co-funded by Business Finland. We focus on upgrading pulp fibre, hemicellulose, and lignin from renewable and sustainable sources of straw and northern wood into new bioproducts. Our vision is to promote the development of new bioproducts based on sustainable biomass to contribute significantly to the reduction of the negative environmental impact of our everyday lives.
Why did you join forces with Fortum, an energy company, to realise this initiative?
Katariina: Both Fortum and Metsä Group have strategic targets to build new and sustainable bio-based businesses of considerable scale. These common interests led to establishing ExpandFibre to speed up innovation, decrease risks, and activate the ecosystem to build the critical mass needed to solve key challenges.
Moreover, ExpandFibre’s ecosystem consists of a multitude of bioeconomy players, who will have a central role in co-creating new technologies and concepts that complement the R&D efforts of Fortum and Metsä Group.
Jarkko’s 3D fibre product development is one of these projects that create new technologies – how is it linked to ExpandFibre?
Katariina: The goal behind our collaboration with Fortum is to act as a source of direction. By going into the entire value chain, talking to companies, understanding them, and seeing what they are doing, we are able to find gaps in the R&D landscape to understand where we need new projects.
Since ExpandFibre is co-funded by Business Finland, the national funding agency has also decided to steer funding into these R&D gaps because there needs to be sufficient activity throughout the value chain. And among many other projects, the 3D fibre project is one of them. Business Finland has taken a similar approach with other large companies and their R&D initiatives, for example, the parallel R&D effort by Nokia focusing on 5G.
What are some of the R&D gaps you have already identified? How do they connect to your focus areas?
Katariina: In general, we have chosen seven areas, in which we are interested and where we already see a need for more innovation and collaboration.
- Textiles, which is a big joint theme for Metsä Group and Fortum. Both companies target finding sustainable new technologies to make textile fibers out of their respective raw materials.
- Biocomposites, a joint focus area where Fortum can bring into play recycled plastics which they produce in Finland
- Packaging, which we cover e.g. through Jarkko’s project
- Sourcing & Fractionation of Straw, a big area for Fortum in particular
- Lignin Products & Hemicellulose Products, again an interest area of Fortum due to the on-going development of the straw fractionation process
- Other Fibre Products, especially looking for new high-volume material solutions that are based on wood pulp fibres, a significant commercial product of Metsä Group
Overall, we are mostly interested in new materials from biomass, however, we decided to exclude fuels and bulk chemicals from the R&D collaboration.
Jarkko: Within these areas, the gaps in the landscape often concern technologies such as 3D printing, robotics, and automation, among others.
While looking for new partners to fill these gaps – what are you looking for?
Jarkko: We want to work with partners that share our vision and have complementary skills. For example, in my project the main partner is Valmet. However, we are also talking with several other companies about gaps in the R&D landscape. We do this because we have the mission to meet the growing demand for sustainable bioproducts by developing groundbreaking materials and technologies. To achieve this, we involve many other companies across the globe.
Katariina: The problems that we are tackling are global – so we need to interact globally as well. We want to have any company on board that can bring in competencies, resources, or networks into this ecosystem of ExpandFibre. Ultimately, we want to activate, network, and bring together all companies and networks that share the same mission.
What is the best way for companies to get involved with ExpandFibre?
Katariina: The best way to get in touch is via our website, where my contact details are available. We’ll also have more information soon regarding joint projects and events, the activities of the ecosystem as well as other channels to share ideas.
What’s important to us is that our partners are aligned with our vision and have competencies, resources, or a network that can contribute to a common goal – and we are open for discussion at any time!
If you are interested in connecting with Metsä Spring to talk about new, wood-based materials, go here.
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