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Matti Heikkilä

A clear path ahead for the bioeconomy

There’s no way around it: renewables are the future, Matti Heikkilä believes. European Biotechnology talked to the CTO of Finnish bioeconomy company MetGen about what bio-based products need to bring to the table to usurp their fossil-based counterparts. 

European Biotechnology 
Matti, you say we need to stop using fossil fuels. But right now there hardly seems to be a consensus on that – especially among politicians. Are you sure this is going to happen in our lifetimes?
Matti Heikkilä
It is hard to be sure about such things – there are sometimes political decisions that defy logic and reason. But I most certainly hope so! I think the key there is to stop wishing it will happen and work towards that goal, by making renewable fuels and chemicals and good alternatives a viable choice for the oil-based industry. In fact, I already see the transition happening. There are big industries, in pulp and paper and packaging, and they all, especially in Europe, seem to share the vision that the chemicals and the materials that are made of oil today can be replaced and, in some cases, even better materials can be found using renewable resources. 

European Biotechnology 
Has Europe advanced further down the path towards a bioeconomy?
Heikkilä
There is a much greater political will going in this direction, especially when compared with what is happening in the US. There are more market-driven approaches on the other side of the Atlantic, but I think there are not as many political drivers to go towards green objectives. Another benefit that we have in Europe is the strong co-operation that stems from the programmes like Horizon 2020, which puts together the best experts from both academia and the industry working towards common goals. This is getting much better nowadays – it’s a much more open and cross-disciplinary collaboration than it was before. One reason for this is: it’s a much more market-driven approach. People are sharing their information with their own benefit in mind. If they make the whole value chain work, it enables their business.

European Biotechnology 
So it is all about the value chains?
Heikkilä
Absolutely. For example, at MetGen, we have created an enzyme that is very good at converting the sugars in wood even at lower purity levels, just to help the value chain. It does not take anything away from us that the pre-treatment company makes a good pre-treated wood slurry as the substrate for our enzymes; and if a chemical company can then turn the result into a plastic bottle, that is also good for our business. It is all about collaboration to fix these value chains. So can we replace petrol-based chemicals in our lifetime? I believe we can do it much faster. Most of the technology already exists, and it is just a matter of connecting the dots, and the right capabilities and people.

European Biotechnology 
How does Finland compete within the European bioeconomy?
Heikkilä

Finland’s resources are almost all wood – similar to our Scandinavian neighbours, but different from many European countries. Even in the European-wide bioeconomy strategy, there are separate sections for different countries because the national capabilities and resources are so different. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, the focus is heavily on biochemicals. The bioeconomy is driven by the industry that is strong locally. The same is true for Finland. Forestry and pulp and paper drives the bioeconomy relatively heavily here. At the same time, since we are up in the North, we do not have the same productivity when it comes to agriculture. We have the bioeconomy strategy implemented on the government level, and it also focusses on the wood-based biomasses. Our company, MetGen, also concentrates on those materials for the most part.

European Biotechnology 
Isn’t it risky to rely on one resource only?
Heikkilä
Actually, MetGen is not picky about the biomass. Wood is where our expertise really shines because that’s the harder substrate. As a rule of thumb, the more lignin you have, the harder it is to put it to economic use. However, the more we assess it, the more we realise that wood is actually a great resource. Wood is not really that expensive. It is also in year-round supply, while grass or straw need to be stored somehow, which then leads to practical issues that come with storing, like the risk of fire and the need for storage space. Also, wood has a lot of sugars to it. Eighty percent of it is sugar – you just need to know how to crack it. And not least, the supply chain is already there. Wood is already being utilised in large quantities. So to me, it is just about transitioning towards using bio­chemicals. MetGen aims to provide the new technologies for pulp and paper to do that.

European Biotechnology 
How exactly do you do that?
Heikkilä
Let me give you an example. We were requested to come up with a laccase that could survive a pH of 10 to 11, or even be at an optimum in this range, so that it could be used in Kraft pulping to help the bleachability and de­lignification of that process. The company that requested this hardly thought it was possible, but we agreed to give it a try. And five months later, we had that molecule industrially produced. And while it was requested by a single company, it now benefits the entire industry.

European Biotechnology 
What role does the consumer play? Can bio-based products only succeed if there is a demand for environmentally friendly alternatives?
Heikkilä
Not at all! The funny thing is: the Polyethylene Furanoate, or PEF for short, is not actually biodegradable. But it is a better alternative to PET. It is a better packaging material; it has better barrier properties than oil-based alternatives; it makes the beverage have a better shelf-life – the oxygen stays out and the carbonation stays in. So in a first step, it might not replace PET-bottles, but it is replacing aluminium cans and glass bottles. Because it has the same superior properties as those. Later, it will overtake the other plastic packaging. So the green alternative is actually better than we can get out of oil. And that’s the thing: For a bio-based alternative to succeed, it has to be as good as the petrol-based product but cheaper, or the same price but better. 

European Biotechnology 
So what is needed for the bioeconomy to come out on top?
Heikkilä
What is needed for that to happen is us in Europe starting to put down money and investment on piloting and market demonstration of technologies. We use a lot of resources and money on research, but then we fail to finance the commercialisation of those technologies. The same is not true of the Chinese or the Americans. We use roughly 90 percent of our resources on research and the remaining ten on development. The same numbers in the US are roughly fifty-fifty, and in China, they use more money on the development and scale-up and commercialisation of things than research. So, what happens in a globalised world is that we use taxpayer money here in Europe to create good products, and then we end up selling them to other continents. My second point is the brain leak if you will. We have to make sure we have incentives for experts globally to come to Europe and help us solve these value chain-wide challenges I mentioned. Europe cannot be the place where we start building walls. Every expert that we get, no matter from what country, will create more work around themselves. So we should not be afraid of losing our jobs if foreign experts come over. Rather, we should be giving them incentives to come. Right now, people are moving away from Finland, and from Europe, to other places where there are more incentives for the brightest and the best of us to succeed. We really need them here.

Matti Heikkilä is Chief Technology Officer of Finnish bioeconomy company MetGen Oy, which develops enzymatic solutions for processing lignocellulosic biomass. Last year, MetGen won the John Sime Award for Most Innovative New Technology at the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology and the Bioeconomy (EFIB). Heikkilä has more than a decade of experience in European industrial biotechnology.