We had a great discussion with Andrew Raslan, Managing Director and Co-founder of Pipeline Organics Ltd., an engineering and technology company focused on the research and development of renewable energy solutions.
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK 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.
Andrew: I am Andrew Raslan, Managing Director and Co-founder of Pipeline Organics Ltd. We are an engineering and technology company focused on the research and development of renewable energy solutions. What makes us unique is that we are disrupting an increasingly crowded market rather than adding incremental improvements. Currently we are working on prototyping and running a pilot of our product with a major water treatment company, with development of a Minimum Viable Product progressing rapidly.
Generally, renewable energy solutions focus around tried-and-tested technologies like solar, wind, hydropower or anaerobic digesters – which is great! But as companies and entire industrial clusters race to make the UK’s Net Zero Carbon ambitions reality, they keep coming to the same realisation – no single renewables technology can completely offset their carbon footprint or meet their energy needs. They have to be used in combination to achieve even extraordinary results like the 50 – 80% energy self-sufficiency we can see at the Seafield Wastewater Treatment works, for instance. And most improvements in this area focus on reducing company energy consumption and incrementally improving the above technologies to make them more efficient.
What we do differently is that we are targeting previously unexploited niches where a wealth of biological, and therefore electrical energy, can be found. Currently, we are developing a commercial product that can generate electrical energy from liquid organic waste in wastewater treatment plants. This has several benefits beyond the obvious energy cost savings for our customers, including reductions in Scope 2 Emissions and decarbonisation benefits in vulnerable communities, such as high-flood-risk areas in Wales. We have also made it a point to embody the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals in all our products and processes, as our ambition is to be a truly sustainable business not just technologically, but also socially.
Andrew: As PhD researchers based at the University of Nottingham, my co-founders (Eric Lehder, CTO, Keyvan Jodeiri, CSO, and Arielle Torres, CEO) and I had the opportunity to compete in the annual Young Entrepreneurship Scheme competition, aimed at teaching early-career researchers how to commercialise technologies coming out of their research. In Autumn 2020, we formed a team and began receiving tailored training courses and business mentoring to help us turn our cleantech solution into a viable business. Eventually, in April 2021 we found ourselves in the final pitch competing for a cash prize. We successfully pitched our business proposition to a panel of judges, including industry experts and seasoned entrepreneurs, defended our case through a round of intense questioning, and eventually became the national winners of YES20’s Engineering, Energy and Environment stream.
We saw the value in our business idea and its environmental and social impact and therefore, decided to start a cleantech company in August 2021. We have since built our business capacity and technical plans to the point where we are confident that we can make our product and our sustainability benefits a reality.
Andrew: A few of the issues one sees in interdisciplinary STEM R&D is also popping up in our own discussions about advisors and recruitment. We have lots of ideas and need to address many different technical and stakeholder concerns in order to bring our product to market and make it a success. Because of this, it takes a lot of consideration and prioritisation to ensure we can benefit from the most crucial advice and business support for our current needs.
In addition, as our company is built around a technology as a product, our business model assumes subcontracting of manufacturing and we will not incur the overheads. Because of this arrangement we can maximise our delivery of energy-saving benefits while keeping our costs low.
Andrew: We wanted a renewable energy product that was economical, easy to produce and deploy, tailorable to different operational environments and reduced dependency on fossil fuel energy. Our belief that technical R&D to accelerate the Race to Net Zero would explode as a market over the following years was validated by various industrial and governmental publications. There was a trend in launch events for various industrial and academic Net Zero clusters to come forth with extremely ambitious pledges. Some promised to achieve carbon-neutral operations by 2027-2030, which will be a challenge with only the current technologies. This is where we found our niche.
Organic liquid waste contains significant amounts of raw chemical energy that can be converted to electricity with some clever technical magic. As organic waste is biodegradable, it can be disposed of with some processing. Most current renewable solutions are expensive, land intensive, and still cannot cover most companies’ total energy needs. Industrial renewable energy strategies need to combine multiple technologies intelligently in order to deliver. So now, we have a market waiting to offer them solutions to go from maybe 20, 30% renewable energy to hopefully 100%, with a completely untapped resource waiting to be exploited. We therefore started developing a disruptive, new class of energy generation unit that could integrate with existing techs and make it that much easier for companies from wastewater to brewery to reach their Net Zero goals. We have since gained traction on both the technical side, with academia helping us develop and scale the technology while we control the IP, as well as customer interest, including a commitment to co-innovate with us from a large wastewater treatment company. So I would say that we are seeing our predictions for a good market fit come true in practice.
Andrew: The first major hurdle we had to overcome was that we are performing R&D but unlike a CRO, do not intend to sell the research activity itself, only the end product. This product offering, especially since new, requires expensive development processes. We planned to develop a Minimum Viable Product that demonstrates market-worthy renewable energy generation at a low cost to customers. However, the renewables market and funding landscape are highly competitive and we wanted to demonstrate maximum value for money by using regional funds to advance our prototype’s functionality and Technological Readiness Level as much as possible prior to large bids. We are currently working on enhancing our prototype’s performance in environmental samples before installing a larger version as a prototype for a collaborating water company. There is much marketing around sustainability and Net Zero initiatives and all these promises based on “maybes” tend to lead to “green fatigue” and sceptical customers, so we want to ensure that we can deliver. We expect that de-risking the product for our target market this will put us in a favourable position for large funding bids and collaborations, while clearly establishing us as a trustworthy presence within the renewable energy space.
Andrew: One approach we’re using is maximising our value proposition and making it more realistic by proving that it can work. At the end of the day, when you are trying to sell technology – eg, a fridge, the first question your client will ask is “does it keep my food cold?”. So far, we have an amazing core team that is rapidly developing a product of real value in terms of its financial and environmental benefits. We are also sifting through advice from a lot of different stakeholders on how to increase our organisational capacity and increase our market readiness.
I would personally say that you need to have resources in place that can cover your needs early on, because a deeptech product that has been more thoroughly validated will likely lead to greater Return on Investment. Also, having the right business plan and strategy along with management systems and processes is essential. There is a lot of business and innovation support out there, including competitions, accelerators and small grants. Moreover, there are indirect ways to access money to meet your needs, including services that are free at point of access. One concrete example is that, as mentioned previously, we are using ERDF-funded opportunities to further develop our technology. These resources can go very far if you know how to use them, and the cumulative results of work you’ve built from small pots of money can put you in a much better place to then approach a large grant funder or an investor and say that you have a product, service and/or organisation of real value.
Basically, assess the market for your product or service, trust it while you work on it, and be mindful of how many opportunities there really are to make it bigger and better quickly. Then, when you pitch it to interested parties, it will be much easier to make them see how that product or service can realistically create value and returns.