Revolution. Within a few years, two Italians turned an idea into a company worth billions. And could thus solve one of the most urgent problems of the present.
Marco Astorri is a brave man. Eleven years ago he founded a company together with his partner Guido Cicognani. Not a single product in the portfolio. Just an idea. And a package of five patents bought on a Pacific island. Seven years later, in the autumn of 2014, the two of them floated part of their company on the stock exchange. The issue price was five euros. Today, the value of a share fluctuates between 50 and 60 euros. A tenfold increase in four years. And because Astorri and Cicognani still hold 60 percent of the shares, the two are now also wealthy men.
The stock market valuation of Bio-on alone is already an indication that something quite unusual, something big is happening there. The market value of the company has reached one billion euros. And this despite the fact that the company closed 2017 with a profit of just 5.2 million euros. The market apparently believes the company has a great future.
In fact, Marco Astorri and Guido Cicognani are in the process of solving one of the great problems of the present. They sell the know-how to produce biological plastic. A substance that grows completely naturally and is 100 percent biodegradable at the end of its useful life.
"It is not," says Marco Astorri, "a plastic based on a natural resource such as corn starch, which is then produced using a chemical production process. The bioplastic I am talking about is produced in nature and at the end of its useful life it is also reabsorbed by nature. Without residues. Without pollution. It can even be used to generate new bio-plastic."
Sounds awesome? Sounds too good to be true?
To understand this almost incredible story, we must go back to where it all began. After Bologna in 2002. It is a story in which coincidences play a certain role. A story in which two friends prove almost as much stubbornness as courage. And it is above all the story of a visionary intuition that began a hundred years ago in France, had a guest performance in Honolulu and has reached its climax for the time being in the hinterland of Bologna.
So, Bologna 2002. Together with his partner Guido Cicognani, Marco Astorri founds the company Lab-ID. Lab-ID works in the field of so-called RFID technology, contactless identification by means of cards. "Simply put," explains Marco Astorri, "we made tickets. Our market stretched from London to Venice. The quantities were huge. But the margin was ridiculously small."
Lab-ID quickly became the European market leader. One of the customers is Dolomiti Superski, a network of twelve ski resorts in the Italian Alps. "For Dolomiti Superski alone, we produced four million ski tickets - per season," says Marco Astorri. "It was this customer who changed my life."
Four million ski tickets is a lot of waste. Above all those hundreds of thousands who do not end up in the garbage cans, but remain lying on the meadows and in the woods after the snow has melted.
The Dolomiti Superskis managers want to know whether there is any other material available. A ticket that's neither plastic nor cardboard? Plastic pollutes the environment. Cardboard dissolves in damp and wet conditions. There's got to be more, right?
Are there more? Marco Astorri cannot let go of this question.
It sounds crazy, but the problem is so much on the mind of the Italian that he finishes his work for Lab-ID and sells the shares in his company. He needs to find an answer. His business partner Guido Cicognani does the same for him.
"We locked ourselves in the office," Astorri says. "We searched the Internet. For days. For weeks. We searched page by page. We lived in the office. From morning till night we gathered information. We gathered circumstantial evidence. We followed tracks. We followed every lead."
You'll finally find what you're looking for. "Not man," says Marco Astorri, "but nature invented plastic. Plastic - and this was my big surprise - has existed in nature for millions of years."
The French biologist and agricultural scientist Maurice Lemoigne had already provided proof of this in 1926. Only bacteria of the Bacillus Megaterium family and waste sugar-containing foods, such as sugar beet shells, are needed to produce plastic. If the bacteria are fed, they produce energy reserves in their interior, analogous to the fat reserves which we humans use as energy stores.
The energy reserves of bacteria consist of polymers. And polymers are the substance that plastic is made of.
Maurice Lemoigne had found out nothing more and nothing less than that bacteria can naturally produce plastic. Plastic which is identical to the plastic we know and which is synthetically produced from petroleum. A revolution.
But Lemoigne made his discovery in the middle of the biggest oil boom. She therefore remained unnoticed. No one thought of pursuing them. The production of plastic from synthetic polymers was too simple and above all too cheap.
It was not until the early 2000s, when the world began to understand that petroleum-based plastic was not only a blessing but also a curse, that the first patents were applied for on Lemoigne's discovery.
A little later, in 2007, Marco Astorri and Guido Cicognani embarked on their search for an alternative material - and came across those very patents. "A handful of scientists from all over the world have been working on this topic and trying out the production of bioplastics," said Marco Astorri. "The most persuasive thing we found was the work of an American in Hawaii."
So Astorri and Cicognani fly together with their lawyer to Honolulu and buy a set of five patents. The price: a few hundred thousand dollars, says Astorri.
It's that simple? Before the Italians, had no one had the idea of buying the patents and developing bioplastics? "But yes, you do," says Astorri. "The Hawaiian had already received several bids from big multinationals - and turned them down. We also wondered why he had chosen us. His answer was: You Italians are simply the best craftsmen. Believe me, we were surprised too."
This is the foundation stone of the Bio-on company, the foundation stone for the industrial production of bioplastics. Still on the way back from Honolulu Astorri and Cicognani formulate their mission. They'll make the best bioplastic in the world. For production, the bacteria must not be fed with food, but exclusively with waste from the food industry. The bioplastics must be 100% biodegradable. Neither the bacteria nor their food may be genetically manipulated. The product must be one hundred percent compatible with human health.
"And that," says Marco Astorri, "is what Bio-on does today." The Bologna-based company has further developed and perfected Lemoigne's method. In large tanks, nutrient solutions containing sugar bubble with bacteria. Every twelve hours, the bacteria double. 40 hours after their birth, they start producing polymers. The process is very similar to the fermentation process in beer brewing. Once the energy reserves of the bacteria have reached the appropriate size, the polymers are extracted and dried. The result is a granulate-like powder. The raw material for plastics.
"This granulate," says Marco Astorri, "can now be used to produce bumpers for cars. Or to make objects in the 3D printer. You can also make packaging material out of it. Or drinking bottles. Or disposable bags. You can use it for anything that uses plastic. It's plastic." With an enormous difference. If the bio-plastic ends up in the environment, in freshwater or seawater or in the earth, it decomposes. Other bacteria recognize the polymers as food and eat them up. A sensation.
300 million tons of petroleum-based plastic are produced every year. Plastic that places a heavy burden on water, oceans and soils. Plastic that can now be found in almost every organism: in the stomachs of birds, in the gills of fish, yes, even in humans. Plastic that takes 500 or 600 years to rot.
Bio-on's bio-plastic dissolves in ten days. "That," says Astorri, "I call it one hundred percent biodegradable. No supply of energy is necessary. No human intervention. Nature makes it, and nature absorbs it."
The application possibilities of bio-plastics are practically limitless. Any existing plastic can be replaced. Without sacrificing functionality. The bio-plastic is just as resistant. Just as elastic. Just as easy.
More than that. Bio-plastics also avoids other disadvantages of synthetic plastics. Since it is a 100 percent natural product, it does not trigger any allergies, rejection reactions or intolerances. Bio-polymers can be implanted. They can be injected. They can be swallowed as a sheath of tablets.
The heart of Bio-on is therefore not the large production plant for organic polymers in Castel San Pietro Terme in Bologna's hinterland. The true heart of Bio-on is its research laboratories. In them, researchers and scientists demonstrate what is possible and feasible with bio-polymers: cosmetics. Nanomedicine. Smart Materials. Textiles. Packaging.
"Our business model," says Marco Astorri, "was never the direct production of polymers, but the sale of know-how. Bio-on grants licenses for the production of bio-plastics. And Bio-on advises companies on the construction of suitable plants. But of course we must first show what our bio-plastic can do. We set the standards for future product development."
The first product to leave the plant in Italy is bio-plastic micro-beads for the cosmetics industry. Skin creams, peelings, toothpaste and sun lotion contain tiny particles of plastic that are released into the environment via wastewater - with dramatic consequences for nature.
"Particles made of bio-polymers are completely harmless because they are completely re-absorbed in water," says Marco Astorri. "But that's not all. Particles made of bio-polymers can transport moisture or scents much better than synthetic polymers. They're more intelligent, so to speak." It goes without saying that all the representatives of the cosmetics industry are now in Bologna to give each other the door handle.
Another sector that intensively seeks contact with Italian research laboratories is the fashion industry. It is one of the biggest polluters. Not only the production of textiles is problematic. During each washing cycle, tiny microplastic fibres enter the water - with harmful consequences for human health and nature. The organic polymers from Castel San Pietro Terme can also help here.
"Currently," says Astorri, "we have developed more than a hundred different bio-polymers. But this is only the beginning. Our organic polymers are like flour. You can create thousands of different recipes from it. We don't even know where all this is going to lead."
In fact, the researchers from Italy only achieved a new breakthrough in September. Until now, bacteria fed on agricultural waste containing sugar: sugar beet shells, sugar cane, potatoes or fruit. Now the researchers have discovered a second family of bacteria that feed on fats, in particular old frying fat.
"One billion litres of disused frying oil is produced every day in North America and Asia alone," says Marco Astorri. "And must be disposed of at great expense. Imagine that. And we can use it to make bio-plastic."
It's actually an almost unbelievable story. The company has already sold 13 licenses. Seven more license agreements are about to be signed.
Bio-plastics are already causing a sensation in the cosmetics and clothing industries. The first children's toys made of bio-plastic will soon be launched on the market. The first glasses made of bio-plastic will soon be available. Negotiations are underway with food manufacturers and the packaging industry.
Bio-on earns money from every product that will be made from bioplastics in the future. And twice. The construction of a production plant for bio-plastics costs approximately 20 million euros. Bio-on will receive approximately two million euros for each plant built according to Bio-on's construction plans. The production of the bio-polymers will then generate additional licensing income. The more companies that will focus on the production of bio-plastics, the higher Bio-on's profits will be. It's a bit like a money press.
With such a lucrative business idea, doesn't Astorri have to be afraid of competitors and imitators? "I'm all relaxed," he says. "Almost twenty years of research have gone into our bio-plastic. It's a lot cheaper to buy a license than to try to imitate us."
The man from Bologna also had a bit of luck with it. He finally started his company in 2008 in the middle of the great financial crisis. A bank loan was not even possible at that time. So he had to look for alternative ways of financing and found a hearing at four Italian sugar factories. They are supporting his research with ten million euros. They should later be able to use his technology free of charge. But all four sugar factories went bankrupt in the course of the global economic crisis. And Astorri was able to keep his research successes to himself.
The fact that Astorri and Cicognani never succumbed to the temptation to get into debt even later enabled them to initially sell only a small part of their company - ten percent - when they went public in autumn. Later, the two then carried out a capital increase in which their share was reduced to 30 percent each. "We have invested all the capital we have received in research and development," says Astorri. "This is our most important asset."
And then he comes out with his most amazing discovery. "There was another question that kept me going: If bacteria can eat fat, can't they eat oil?" The answer is yes. Bio-ons bacteria are even able to consume petroleum. If the bacteria are scattered on a petroleum carpet in the water, this has disappeared within three weeks. "Our bacteria," says Marco Astorri, "can cleanse the oceans. What do you say to that?" Finally, crude oil is also a natural material consisting of hydrocarbons. More food for Bio-ons bacteria.
A thousand tons of bio-plastic per year are produced in a production plant such as the one in Castel San Pietro Terme. If only one percent of the world's plastics production were to be converted to bio-plastics in the coming years, this would mean the construction of 3000 plants. The license revenues of Bio-on would then amount to six billion euros. "There are problems for which people have not yet found a solution. But we now have the solution to the plastic problem in our hands," says Marco Astorri. "How quickly bio-plastic will replace conventional plastic now depends on the efforts of the industry and the will of the consumers.
It goes without saying that the bio-plastic is first used where the margins are highest - such as in the cosmetics industry. But it will gradually find application in more and more areas. And at some point the last bottles and cups may be made of organic plastic. Then Marco Astorri would not only be a very wealthy man. But also a very happy one.
Author: Sabine Holzknecht