P | P | P feat. Starbons

We caught up with Susan Brench, Director and CEO of Starbons Ltd as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Starbons is a former University of York spin-out founded in 2012, which then became independent in 2017. Starbons manufactures mesoporous carbons from bio-renewable products. Simply put, a Starbon® is a solid sponge which allows different species to pass through or stick to it, thus allowing the sustainable capture or separation of substances, without the need for high temperature or pressure conditions.

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.

Kim @ ADLIB: Hi Susan. Can you please introduce yourself, what Starbons does, the stage you are currently at, and what makes Starbons unique?

Susan: I am Susan Brench, Director and CEO of Starbons Ltd, a micro start up business which was originally a spin out from the University of York. Coming from a 30 plus year career in the fine and specialty chemical manufacturing sector, I am passionate about leveraging innovation in science and engineering to make products and processes “greener”, including valorization of waste that might otherwise be disposed of. I came across Starbons Ltd 3 years ago, during the course of undertaking some consultancy work through my company Akemi Associates; I recognised the technology’s potential, but that commercial leadership was required to realise that potential. The Company is now an independent entity with its own IP. We have since successfully scaled from bench (grammes) to pilot (kgs) and continue to optimise our production process. We are now highly focussed on developing our sales pipeline, leveraging strategic partnerships. Starbons Ltd manufactures mesoporous carbons from biorenewable raw materials such as pectin, starch and a seaweed extract (alginic acid). A Starbon® material is like a solid sponge. The hole sizes and “stickiness” of the “sponge” allow different sized species to pass through or stick to the Starbon®. Varying the “stickiness” means that substances can be captured or separated in many ways, so we design technical solutions tailored to the customer’s specific needs and end use application.

Kim @ ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of your business and Service / Product?

Susan: The name “Starbon” comes from Starch and carbonisation. The academics at the University of York’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence were approached to find a use for waste materials. Simple polysaccharides were converted into robust materials with tunable surface chemistry and pore size. Since that discovery in 2006, over 55 peer review papers have been published using Starbons, showing their effective application in a range of fields from capture or separation, catalysis, batteries and much more.

Kim @ ADLIB: Speaking of People, can you share some challenges you have faced, are facing or are anticipating around scaling and growing your team? Do you have any top tips you could share with those businesses faced with the same issues?

Susan: Resource, be that people or cash, is a fundamental challenge for start-ups. Early stage “hard tech” companies in the science and engineering sector often have the challenge of proving the technology/products, which can take months or even years, in order to gain traction and thus attract 3rd party funding. Finding the cash to finance this “proof of concept” and test marketing activity can be a challenge – often it has to come from “bootstrapping”. So, time given pro bono by those in the business, personal loans and grant funding. Grants often require matched funding and thus can be prohibitive at the early stage. It’s very important to identify strategic partners and market focus early on, and to be prepared to “pivot” many times. Also, to be prepared to fail fast and consider a minimum viable product or technology and not to strive for perfection! Absolutely, however exciting the technology is from a scientific standpoint, it has to fulfil a commercial need and stand up against competitors. Once a business case to scale up from the lab has been established, it can be another challenge to find suitable manufacturing assets – especially when a process is so innovative that it is not possible to “drop in” to existing pilot facilities or contract manufacturers’ facilities. Partnering with relevant innovation clusters and industry bodies can be an effective means to be signposted to funding opportunities and also to like-minded organisations, including potential suppliers, customers and contractors.

Kim @ ADLIB: Moving to Product, what has been your approach to understanding and implementing product market fit or sales cycles?

Susan: We have moved forwards by addressing the basic 4 Ps of marketing; Product, Place, Price and Promotion. There is no substitute for getting out there and speaking to prospects, to promote the technology and to assess the competitor landscape. We have attended, and presented at, relevant conferences, and participated in innovation competitions, amongst other activities. Thus, we have focussed down to some high value core markets: separations (solid phase extraction) and gas capture. So, for example, we have been working with a UK based company to invent a novel methodology for extraction of cannabinoids. This has been achieved in one single step, whereas incumbent methodologies involve cryogenic freezing, short path distillation, crystallisation and chromatography. These processes are mass and/or energy intensive. Within this year we expect to offer a reusable SPE (Solid Phase Extraction) system that can eliminate or vastly reduce the need for such technologies. A scaled-up prototype is in the design phase for implementation in Q4 2022. Another example is in toxic gas capture.  Starbon® materials have the potential to be used in respirators used by the military, fire services, police and civilian applications; our products have been shown to increase the adsorption of noxious gases up to 20-fold compared with the industry standard and are currently being tested by interested parties.

Kim @ ADLIB: And then Potential, can you share some challenges or barriers you had to overcome to create a Product / Service offering with potential?

Susan: I return to scale up – how to provide early-stage material which will be representative of larger scale production? A further complication is that since Starbons are derived from natural materials, there is inherent variability to understand; it’s so important to pin down the impact (if any) of the source and grade of feedstock in relation to the customer end use. Furthermore, physical form can play a huge role when it comes to performance in the final end use application. Often, it’s expensive for prospects to trial material so the process of evaluation should be de-risked for the potential customer as far as possible. One also has to be mindful of regulatory matters, for example REACH, and end use application standards.

Kim @ ADLIB: Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups & scale-ups. Do you have any piece of wisdom you could share around best approach?

Susan: Building on my previous answer regarding challenges, Starbons Ltd has participated in funded venture and investor readiness programmes (run by the KTN, PAPI and the LEP). These have been invaluable. There is low cost/free of charge support out there for entrepreneurs, including the Carbon13 programme (see Carbon13 – The Venture Builder for the Climate Emergency (carbonthirteen.com), with signposting to relevant investors and grant funding. I would advise any micro business to get involved, use those resources to raise their profile and most importantly assess their product or service’s market potential as early as possible. Investors are keen to see early traction and progress.      

Thank you for your time, and valuable input, Susan.

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