- Founders: Marcel Alberts
- Founded in: Januari 2021
- Employees: 18
- Money raised: 10,5 million euros
- Ultimate goal: Healix is helping to break the plastic wave (the why) by creating a circular future for plastic fiber waste (the how).
Every year, thousands of kilos of fishing nets end up in the ocean. Marcel Alberts, the founder of Healix, based in the Dutch city of Maastricht, is determined to rid the oceans of fishing nets. Together with other companies, he wants to preserve maritime life by retrieving fishing nets out of the water and turn them into polymer raw material. Because of his background at DSM, he was able to build up his customer base quickly. In this instalment of start-up of the day, he talks to us about how Healix is going to achieve this.
Can you briefly share how you made the move from DSM to Healix?
“I did my graduate internship in Technical Management Sciences at DSM. After my internship, I ended up staying on at DSM and doing marketing sales for many years. I handled the sales side of Dyneema, one of the strongest fibers in the world, which is also used to make bulletproof vests. After working with a great deal of pleasure at DSM, I started my own company where we applied fibers with a coating. We had developed a special technology for this, which gave the fibers a different color and also improved the properties of the fibers. That company grew incredibly fast and, after eight years, there was a knock on the door from a private equity club in Amsterdam with an offer that I ultimately couldn’t refuse. It had been going so well for so long, what if all of a sudden things went downhill? So, I sold the company.”
“Working under a boss, not much travel, and corona that kept everyone home – I wanted to get back to doing my own thing. After having a good chat with our investor, who asked if I couldn’t see any opportunities because of corona, I got to thinking. In the sector I was working in, no new opportunities were there on account of corona. But the world needs to change, we need to take better care of our planet. At the end of the day, supplying ropes to net makers generates so much waste. Waste that ends up in the ocean and that we indirectly ingest, as well as causing the extinction of all marine life. The European Commission wants to make manufacturers responsible for this waste. I could do something with that. This is how Healix came into being. We went from linear to circular.”
How do you turn fishing nets and ropes into polymers?
“We have developed a process. It comes in in bales, those bales are then chopped into small pieces. These small pieces can then go through our washing bay. After that, they need to be dried properly so that we can melt them down. After melting, they are passed through a fine sieve one more time to get all the impurities out. In the final step, we turn it all into granules so that these can be used to make new things like new fishing nets, but shampoo bottles too.”
“Just to answer your follow-up question; we have an extraction system in the shredder that extracts all the microplastics. This extraction is done with 17,000 cubic meters of air around the shredder, this air is fed through a blower with a JET Filter. All the air passes through a separate bag and the microplastics stick to the outsides of the bags, the jets of air that blow against the bags cause the microplastics to drop down and end up in an auger that screws them out. We do another round in the washing bay where we flush out the microplastics, but use a sieve when the water is separated from the plastic. We use 70,000 liters of water per hour to wash 1,000 kilograms of plastic. We reuse this water over and over again. In fact, we have our own water treatment plant that is separate from the sewer system.”
Who supplies the plastic for recycling?
“Several companies. Our logo is meant to represent a turtle because I came mostly from the maritime sector. But we don’t only work together with the maritime sector, we are also keen to help the agricultural sector. In fact, one of our partners is Ocean Cleanup. They provide us with a lot of materials. That’s great, because they have a lot of waste, including the same stuff that we can use to keep everything running. Former clients of mine also supply materials so that they can work in a circular way.”
“Agriculture was not the plan at first, but we do need a lot of volume to make the factory profitable. This is also the greatest challenge we had straight away, getting a sufficient supply of materials to recycle into polymer. I’m involved in a trade association, Eurocord, which is mainly made up of maritime parties, but also includes an agricultural company from Israel, Tama. Tama said, ‘Hey Marcel, we share your dream. We no longer want to make our straw binders out of virgin plastic, we want to make them out of recycled plastic. Can you help out? That’s how the ball started rolling.”
What kinds of things are you running into with your business?
“What I find difficult and a shame is that plastic has a very negative image. Everyone sees plastic as a disposable product. Everything has to be single-use and cheaper, cheaper, cheaper. As far as I’m concerned, plastic should be ten times as expensive, it would be okay to tax it. Virgin plastic in particular should be much more expensive. People will then think more carefully about how they use plastic. The use of recycled materials and recycling of materials would become much more attractive then. It’s something I struggle with because it’s beyond my control. It would be really nice if there was someone who does have control over this to give us a slight push in that direction.”
“We are a rich country, a rich continent. It may seem a bit privileged to be able to make such statements, but let’s start by implementing them ourselves. We can point fingers at poorer countries where they use a lot more plastic and don’t recycle, but we should actually lead by example. We have the money, let’s continue to develop concepts like Healix and Ocean Cleanup. I sometimes worry about the financial picture of Healix because the kilogram price of recycled plastic is so low that it takes a lot to be able to make ends meet. But once Healix is rolled out, less and less money will be needed to set up new sites. Healix is not about money, it’s about the circularity of what we already have. The biggest threat to the world is the belief that somebody else will save it.”
What will you have to say when we meet again in five years’ time?
“Two things could happen. By then, I might say that Healix was really a very stupid idea, which I really should never have bothered with. The other scenario is that I laughingly say; ‘I remember we were knee-deep in blubber at the time, but our company has since matured to an entirely different level.’ Obviously, I’m hoping that it will be the second one, that’s our ambition. We’ve now got our factory in Maastricht, which is a bit of a strange place if you want to recycle fishing nets. We need to develop the process here first, iron out the teething problems and then we can start to copy and paste. Factories in Norway, France, Australia. Small factories all operating in the same way. Our current factory is set up to process 6,000 tonnes a year, we’re not there yet as we only started running in January 2021, but in five years’ time, of course, that will be peanuts for us.”