P | P | P feat. Cellfion

We caught up with Liam Hardey, Co-founder and CEO of Cellfion. With state-of-the-art sustainable materials, Cellfion is a pioneer in bio-based ion-selective membranes for next level clean energy and conversion devices.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Kim @ ADLIB: Hi Liam, thanks so much for speaking with me today. Could you please introduce yourself, your business and what stage your currently at, and what makes your business offering unique?

Liam: Hi, my name is Liam Hardey, and I am the Co-founder and CEO of Cellfion. Cellfion is a Swedish Clean-tech start-up, and it is a spinoff from three research institutes in Sweden, consisting of the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Linköping university and Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE). At Cellfion we manufacture and commercialize bio-based membranes, this is a new material that can be applied to different battery and hydrogen technologies. The thing that makes our solution unique is the material it is made out of.

We are, as far as we know, the first company in the world to develop and commercialize a completely bio-based membrane.

Most of the commercially available membranes are made from toxic materials or PFAS substances, which are likely to be banned from the EU in the coming years. The material we use is made from cellulose, its derived from wood. Cellulose is the most abundant biopolymer on the planet, so what we do is take trees and liberate them. We liberate the nano-cellulose fibres from them, then chemically modify these to make them into sheets of membranes.

The function of this technology is to only allow for certain charged ions to transport through it, while blocking the other ions that you don’t want to transport through. Ultimately, it’s a barrier material. We are an early-stage start-up and we have just closed our first round at €1.4M, which will support us with material development. This will take us to a place where we are able to scale the company in 2024. Currently we have 5 operative employees and we looking to expand this team with a couple more additions before Christmas.

Kim @ ADLIB: Amazing, how does the technology block the ions?

Liam: We chemically modify the nanocellulose fibrils surface areas. Its also a porous material, with pore sizes that are 2 nanometres thick. We attach negatively charged chemical groups onto the fibril surfaces that propel the negative ions, which we don’t want to transport. This only allows passage of the cations (positively charged ions).

Kim @ ADLIB: That’s so interesting. Can you share the story behind the origin of Cellfion?

Liam: The research behind Cellfion started about 10 years ago, in 2012. The researchers at KTH began to investigate the applications of cellulose materials. They began to investigate electrode materials and other energy application materials. Then after a couple of years they discovered that this is a good barrier material, so it would be perfectly applied as an ion-selective membrane. In 2017 they had a grant accepted and they began to investigate the membrane being applied to fuel cells. They began to see some interesting discoveries. This led on to another project 2 years later, where they began to look into redox flow batteries. This is where we began comparing to membranes currently available on the market. In 2021, we started the company. Cellfion was one of the projects I was working on at my previous employment, where I worked on portfolio deep tech cases. I worked for around 6 months, leading the project and we could see the huge potential from a market perspective. So, we decided to start the company and I stepped in as the CEO. Since this we have been developing quickly. In one year, we managed to raise capital, have technology enhancements, gain customer interest and we have been fortunate enough to be awarded some prizes. It’s been a really fun first year.

Kim @ ADLIB: Wow, what prizes have you won?

Liam: We won the prize of Beyond Academic by Venture Cup Sweden and we have been selected as the 103 New Ideas. We also won Ignite Sweden Start-up hack 2021, SKAPA regionals finals and a few others. It’s been really exciting and great for publicity.

Kim @ ADLIB: Moving onto people, can you share some of the challenges you have faced or are facing surrounding scaling your team, and do you have any tips you could share with other start-ups facing similar issues?

Liam: Someone once said to me: When you find good people for your team, keep them no matter what. One of the hardest things is to find the right people to come into your company. It is very important that you find people who complement each other. Don’t look for the same sort of competency or background you have. You should diversify your team the best you can. It is very important to focus on company culture. When companies scale very fast, it can be easy to sacrifice culture, but the culture needs to be adapted to scaling the company. When recruiting we look at their backgrounds, how they complement our team, and also their personality. Looking at if they’ve faced any challenges in life. With start-ups that are scaling, it can be challenging so we need resilient people, who can also be flexible as there aren’t always set roles.

Kim @ ADLIB: I think that’s the beauty of working for a start-up, the versatility of the role. Can you share some other challenges or barriers you’ve had to overcome when creating Cellfion?

Liam: when we started Cellfion we didn’t really have anything to stand on, we didn’t have a product yet and a long way to go toward developing our solution. We felt we knew the market demand and the company funding was ending so we needed to do something now or the technology would disappear. After the company was established, we were granted research funding. It takes about 5-7 years to fully commercialize research which can be challenging but with a strong team and a clear vision we are dedicated to reach our goals. but this has made us stronger as we challenge each other. One of the biggest challenges, is deciding when your product is good enough to launch. So, you don’t go out too early or sit around and wait too long. Taking forward a product from research on limited time and resources is an interesting journey.

Kim @ ADLIB: It takes a lot of resilience. Finally, investment can often be a challenge for start-ups. Do you have any wisdom you can share around the best approach to this.

Liam: At the moment, the capital market is not easy. We have been very fortunate and have managed to raise funds during the financial dip. We did see some investors backing out in this time. Especially private investors with money in the stock markets. Above all else, when approaching investors it’s important to be honest. There’s no point in sugar coating things. Also, to really show the potential of your technology. If the investor is right for you, then they will invest no matter what stage you are. Again, it’s about getting the right people involved. A lot of investors now are looking for sustainable investments, so you should try mitigating risks for them. There’s a lot of ways you can mitigate risks for investors. For example, taking on multiple investors or from creating a development plan that is devised in a way that shows in the long term you will be able to get returns.

Kim @ ADLIB: Thanks so much for sharing your journey at Cellfion with us, it has been great speaking with you.

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