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Young chemistry companies take part in the Gouden KIEM competition organised by the research organisation NWO and Holland Chemistry. The winner will receive 25.000 euro prize money. This year all three finalists of the competition come from the Eindhoven University of Technology. The start-ups that have been selected to pitch their plans in front of the Gouden KIEM jury are Sponsh, Vertoro and Lusoco.

“I want to make a global impact”, Michael Boot thinks big. As CEO he wants to become a “billion dollar” company with Vertoro. He is currently talking to investors in Silicon Valley. “They require such an ambition.” Boot is a strategist and comes up with creative solutions. As a PhD in mechanical engineering and an MBA in his pocket, he wants to set the standard for the biobased industry as soon as possible. He wants to do this with Vertoro’s lignin oil. Just like Google is the standard for search engines. “Making an impact and leaving the world a better place than I found it.” In the grand café De Zwarte Doos at the TU/e terrain, drinking a cup of coffee, he tells IO about his plans. 

Vertoro turns lignin, which is in the cell walls of trees and plants, into an oil that can be used to make other products. It is an answer to the use of petroleum. “Everything you make from crude oil can be made from lignin. There is more than enough lignin.” In collaboration with TU/e, Maastricht University, Brightlands Chemelot Campus, InSciTe and DSM, the entire process has been developed and patented. Starting next year, a barrel of oil will be produced per day in a pilot plant on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen. “We can make it at low cost, and it is easy to transport over long distances. We can use the pipelines and tankers that are currently used for crude oil”.

Read more about the technology behind Vertoro here

Boot sees Vertoro as a platform that other companies use to develop a product. “Like Google. That is such a platform. Navigation applications need the technology of Google, partly because of these applications Google exists and vice versa. That is also how I see it at Vertoro. We take care of the crude oil, and other companies use it for their product.”

CEO co-founder Michael Boot, CTO co-founder Panos Kouris, professor Emiel Hensen TU/e

The petrochemical sector is the competitor, Boot says. This sector processes oil and manufactures products from oil. A drilling platform extracts the oil from the ground and factories, and oil refineries convert it into fuels such as diesel and petrol, synthetic fibres, plastics, and detergents. “A sector that is one hundred and fifty years old. It is perfectly organised, and everything is geared to each other. The use of residual heat, heat that remains in one production process is reused in another. It’s logistically and organisationally correct. Perfectly arranged, except that it is not sustainable.” Boot uses the petrochemical sector to learn from it. “I truly believe in the fact that you can only make a big impact if you organise yourself as the petrochemical sector does.”

As the creator of the team, which currently consists of seven people, the mechanical engineer thought about how lignin oil could compete with fossil oil. He found the answer in niche markets. “Markets that are relatively difficult to address from fossil oil but can be easily addressed with our oil. There you can get a nice margin.” Lignin oil can be used as a raw material for foam in chairs and insulation material, or as a phenolic resin used for billiard balls and in the methanol fuel market for shipping.

Boot wants to raise ten to fifteen million euros for a demo factory by 2020. An important step towards its dreamed platform for bio-based oil. He talks to investors from Silicon Valley. “There they look primarily at the team and the potential of a start-up and secondary at the underlying risks. In Europe, it is often the other way around. Perhaps less risky, but it takes more time. And speed is crucial. Anyone who is the first to establish a platform for widely deployable crude oil from biomass and who can scale up sufficiently quickly will play a dominant role in the market. I’m going to make sure that we will be the first one.”

Within the team, that knowledge about the petrochemical market is also present. The financial man, Timothy Boon van Ochssée, worked for years as an economist at Saudi Aramco, the largest oil company in the world. Boots cousin, Lourens Boot CEO of Sponsh, worked for Shell for years. “Lourens and I have been brainstorming with each other for about two years. As start-ups, we run into the same things. We’re in two completely different markets, but many things are the same, like VAT issues, or how to deal with a university where the technology comes from.” Sponsh is also nominated for the Gouden KIEM Award.

Panos Kouris pitching at Benelux Venture Tech Tour in November

The money Vertoro can win with the Gouden KIEM Award is beautiful, Boot says. For him, however, the exposure is especially important. “Even the losers get exposure. A video has been made in which I was able to tell what we do.” Earlier this year Vertoro raised € 550,000 in venture capital and received grants. Like a LIOF Agro-Food subsidy of € 50,000 to make the lignin oil from mushroom manure, also called champost, which is rich in lignin. Vertoro also received, together with Professor Emiel Hensen, from the TU/e, a starting grant of € 40,000 from the NWO domain of Applied and Engineering Sciences. Vertoro is one of the finalists of TechTour, a European investor event for fast-growing technology start-ups to be held in Düsseldorf on 10 and 11 December. “Another nice thing to mention is that our technical man and co-founder of Vertoro, Panos Kouris, was chosen last November as one of the fifty ‘Young European Talents’.” A three-day programme in which talents from France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands are invited to participate. 

Boot: “I dream that the price of a barrel of Vertoro’s lignin oil will appear at the bottom of the screen on channels like CNN next to the price of gold, fossil oil, and other raw materials.”