At the beginning of this year, Panos Kouris won the Marc Cornelissen Brightlands Award. His company Vertoro produces what is known as a bio-oil platform product (GOLDILOCKS®) made from sustainable residual flows from the forestry and agriculture sectors. The product can be used as biofuel for container ships or feed for the chemical sector. Maersk Growth, the venturing arm of the world’s largest shipping company, has decided to invest in the company. “It’s still too soon for champagne.”
About Bright people
To make the world of the future a bit more beautiful, cleaner and better, BRIGHT PEOPLE are indispensable. In this series we interview each month a leading light of the Brightlands Campuses. These born innovators talk about their mission and how they want to achieve it. Today the first episode with Panos Kouris.
Towards cleaner shipping
Every Dutch politician would be proud to write the story of Dr. Panos Kouris (34), a tale of creating opportunities and cashing in on them. His story begins in the city of Kalamata in southern Greece. As the son of engineers, it isn’t surprising that he attended the University of Patras to get his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. After graduation, he went in search of the right place to get his Master’s and applied to programs in England and Scandinavia, but ultimately set his sights on the Netherlands. “The reason I chose the Netherlands was because of its very close and strong relationship between universities and industry. I also knew that the Dutch place a high priority on innovation, and don’t shy away from taking risks. If you look at the statistics on startups in Europe, you can see that the Netherlands is doing particularly well. There is an excellent climate here for starting entrepreneurs; the government offers subsidies and funding, and the business community isn’t afraid to invest. It naturally depends on the field, but when it comes to chemistry, the Dutch are doing very well.”
It’s one thing to lure foreign talent to come do their master’s at TU Eindhoven but is quite another to offer them opportunities for further growth that will enable them to start a business. It is however Panos Kouris’ story, one every politician would love to take credit for.
Read more about the Technical University of Eindhoven
He co-founded the startup Vertoro while working on his PhD. Panos joined the company, won the Marc Cornelissen Brightlands Award incentive prize for his ability to inspire others, and now lives with his Dutch wife and sons Tristan and Daniël in Rosmalen. He commutes between the Eindhoven University of Technology where he still conducts scientific research and Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen where Vertoro continues to grow.
The company’s big break came recently. Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, announced it will invest in the company through Maersk Growth, together with SHIFT Invest, Brightlands Venture Partners, and LIOF. Currently employing ten people and promoting the claim that it is accelerating the green revolution, Vertoro will now be able to build a pilot plant at Brightlands Chemelot Campus in 2022. This facility will be used to further develop marine fuels in collaboration with Maersk, and to produce other Goldilocks® applications in both the materials and chemical sectors. “It’s a huge step, but we won’t be opening the champagne until the first ship driven by our alternative fuel leaves the port,” Panos Kouris laughs.
He knew as early as his youth in Greece that he would become an entrepreneur one day, and not necessarily to get rich, but mainly to make a difference for a sustainable world. And who knows, one day he may succeed in bringing clean fuel to the country of his birth; after all, the Greek national fleet is enormous.
We knew we were on the right track and that nobody else was working on anything similarPanos Kouris
Read (much) more about Vertoro
After two years of “hard work and research”, Panos Kouris started Vertoro together with the project’s initiator, Dr. Michael Boot. “We knew we were on the right track and that nobody else was working on anything similar. Thanks in part to investment bank LIOF and Brightlands Venture Partners, we were able to further develop our idea born at the TU Eindhoven lab in Geleen. It was important for us to be able to work with large companies such as DSM and Sabic. We want to apply the chemical industry’s expertise and know-how to our scale-up strategy.”
“The problem with startups isn’t so much the risks involved, but the difficulty assessing when you’ve built up momentum. It’s the same as with companies like YouTube or Yahoo; they were active long before they became big companies. Now that everyone is talking about climate change and the Green Deal, we believe we are onto a good thing. We want to offer competitive, sustainable products to cost-conscious and environmentally aware customers around the world. The shipping industry is responsible for just under four percent of CO2 emissions, which is a considerable amount. For every ton of fossil fuel they burn, three tons of CO2 end up in the atmosphere. We are now seeing that the shipping industry is being called to account in this regard by major conglomerates such as IKEA, which aims to be CO2 neutral by 2040. Even a giant like Maersk has now set strict deadlines to reduce emissions. The goals involve hitting the halfway mark for climate neutrality by 2030, and they want to be fully climate-neutral by 2050. I am incredibly proud that our product has the potential to help the shipping industry decarbonize its operations.”
Kouris quickly puts Vertoro’s contribution in perspective. “We offer just one of the solutions. So many options are necessary to ensure shipping becomes a clean industry.” In its 2020 sustainability report, Maersk Group recently identified four priority fuels for emission-free shipping. Among biodiesel, biomethanol, and green ammonia, lignin-alcohol fuels (Vertoro’s platform product) are considered the most competitive net-zero fuels, with the lowest price nearly equal to that of fossil fuels. Vertoro’s liquid fuel currently only works for ships that run on methanol. Maersk has ordered eight ships that can run on this fuel. For comparison purposes, the Danish company’s entire fleet is a hundred times larger.
Thanks to Maersk’s investment, a pilot plant can be set up at Brightlands Chemelot Campus to further develop and scale up the fuel. Production is expected to be able to start in around nine months. The goal is for production to eventually be handled at one of the European ports; this will probably be Rotterdam since the region has committed to offering a startup subsidy. Kouris: “Bear in mind that the lifespan of a container ship is approximately thirty years. This means that any decisions made now must still be viable by 2050, the year we all hope to be climate-neutral.”
I’m a scientist so I also know that we will destroy the earth if we continue on this pathPanos Kouris
Vertoro promotes itself as the driving force behind the green revolution. Is this also Panos Kouris’ personal belief? “I’m a scientist so I also know that we will destroy the earth if we continue on this path. I’m also concerned, but at the same time, I’m an optimistic person and am happy that I can make a contribution. We’re not going to change the world just because young scientists are able to develop good ideas through startups; the big companies must also change and help put these ideas into practice. I want my children to be able to live in a clean world.”
What’s the current situation in Greece in terms of the greening movement? “I have seen good initiatives there, too. Don’t forget that Greece has one of the largest navies in the world. I hope that we can also inspire startups in Greece.” He won’t be going back there to do that, however. “My life is here now. My family, my work: everything is here. I might go back when I retire.” The world should be a much cleaner place by then.