The “disruptive power” of nature is real for Enrico de Landerset, CEO of FiberLean Technologies, a Werhahn company. Specifically, FiberLean’s micro fibrillated cellulose (MFC) recipes replace plastics, making paper and packaging more versatile and cost-effective. With more than 600 patents for FiberLean MFC and customers on three continents, scientists and application specialists have developed over 250 recipes to help customers realize optimization gains and savings.
Enrico de Landerset, CEO, FiberLean Technologies.
Strength gains allow for more cycles of recycled fiber. Virgin fibers can achieve lightweighting. Less expensive composites—primarily fiber and minerals—reduce costs and allow a more flexible raw material supply. Substitution for starch and synthetic coating materials is not only possible, but proven. Perhaps the most startling innovation is retrofitting a brown board machine to a white top for near-zero Capex. That’s EUR50-100 million (as much as US$97 million) not invested—the typical sum for this upgrade.
As de Landerset expresses in this interview, FiberLean’s small footprint modules at paper mills and wood products factories have fast payback and can be installed in a few months. The modules require little change in processes and are easily scalable. Let’s explore the breakthrough through de Landerset’s eyes.
Paper360°: Tell us about FiberLean MFC and your commercial prospects.
de Landerset: FiberLean Technologies was originally owned by Imerys and Omya. Our story begins with inventive scientists at Imerys who realized that fiber, ground and processed almost like a mineral, opened the way for fiber performance properties not previously possible.
For example, papermakers typically refine—not grind—to achieve greater strength and other desired properties. Building on this simple yet rather astonishing grinding finding, our scientists unlocked ways to increase mineral content and decrease long fiber in printing and writing, lightweight in packaging, increase quality to enter into new grades with machine retrofitting, and help customers save millions.
To accelerate the acceptance of FiberLean MFC, Imerys and Omya agreed to a joint venture. Their combined efforts yielded advances on behalf of customers in Europe, the US, and India. However, both companies realized FiberLean was not a core fit for their businesses. So, in 2021 they sold FiberLean Technologies to Werhahn KG, a German, family-owned company that sought a “high-tech” dimension to their product offerings.
The immediate result has been recognition of the power of FiberLean MFC as a pure play of fiber. I say “pure play” because I’m a financial person by training. A “pure play” breakthrough with the proper commercial backing is pure gold. That’s the stock you hope to buy early and watch it climb in value. By focusing on MFC itself, many additional benefits have become apparent rather than only providing a way to use more minerals in a sheet.
Can you give examples of specific property advantages and substitutions?
On its own, MFC made with pure fiber is a superb strength agent, a barrier coating, and even an overcoat that can be sprayed onto bananas to help them last longer. The right recipe for MFC can even be a fire retardant. That’s right, wood burns, as we all know; but MFC can reduce the harmful effects of wildfire on building structures. Concerning building products, we are helping medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and ceiling tile manufacturers explore ways to be more cost-effective and sustainable.
As for substitution, you can be more flexible with hardwood, softwood, and recycled fiber resources. You can reduce starch or, in the case of MDF, you can reduce urea-formaldehyde (UF) resin, bio-minimizing artificial raw materials that are not environmentally friendly.
I must mention our FiberLean on Top for white top and replacements for synthetic barrier coatings. I have a provocative question: would you like to change from brown to white to a printed rainbow with low Capex? Near zero cost, vs. EUR50-100 million? Or do you value a new way to eliminate man-man binders with a natural approach? We are serious about these breakthroughs and have the proof of concept happening as this interview takes place.
How do you deliver your products to customers?
Our primary business model is what we call Fiberlean MFC modules. How small are they? You can jog around our largest units in three minutes. My point is that FiberLean considers it easy to be small and beautiful. Beautiful means saving money at equal or greater performance … and as a runway to innovation.
How would you express your attitude toward sustainability?
Our commitment to sustainability is fundamental to who we are. Being innovative, disruptive, and productive by nature—our slogan expresses our core belief—there are no apologies for sustainable solutions. With know-how and commitment, the managed and urban forests provide superior alternatives to petroleum-based materials. The key benefit from the declining “era” of artificial, synthetic solutions is that they opened the way to extreme performance not previously evident from nature. But this in itself is not acceptable anymore.
How do you see FiberLean Technologies’ potential over the next 10 years?
Imagine this … tiny amounts of FiberLean MFC in your paper, board, panelboard, or ceiling tile—and many yet-to-be-discovered applications—immediately open the way for higher profitability and new product development. That’s the key. We are a significant cost saver and an essential value-added tool simultaneously.
We have said that MFC really stands for “Money From Cellulose” to convey the cost savings point. Our FiberLean MFC modules onsite deliver scalable value. FiberLean MFC modules are plug-and-play—tiny powerhouses of innovation and profit production.
More than simply offering products, our applications teams are another part of what we deliver. As a solutions provider, we realize the importance of having low-maintenance, flexible, and complete offerings. We help customers evolve. We are consultants who care about continuous improvement. We are not a commodities supplier.
Remember that our products and know-how reduce chemicals, water, and energy consumption. Efficiency and creative developments happen partly because of our close observations on a real-time basis, both onsite and remotely.
Considering your origins in research and development, is selling a challenge?
I have found a rather remarkable quality in our inventors and engineers. Once they hear the story of the needs of customers for biomaterial and sustainable solutions, they instinctively understand the value of what we are offering to customers. Why invent if there’s no clear purpose?
Admittedly, it’s a challenge for our small group—under 100 people—to replace the commercial scope and capabilities of Imerys and Omya. But we are realistic. Our business development and sales teams are growing. Over the next five years, we will have 25-50 customers and EUR5-6 million (up to around US$5.8 million) in sales for each MFC module onsite. We are open to other channels, such as a merchant model, to provide smaller quantities of FiberLean MFC from our facilities or joint ventures.
What’s next for FiberLean Technologies?
On behalf of current customers, we are exploring new ways to help them differentiate. Soon, we will announce new customers and partners in paper, packaging, and building products. You could say we are not so refined yet in our commercial approach, but we gently grind away with finesse vs. over-refining and breaking down fiber. A curious twist for us is breakthroughs based on mineral grinding techniques—for wood fiber!
Keep your eyes on us as part of the new wave of sustainable bio-material advocates and providers. Nature is moving fast with new solutions—especially when passionate inventors and commercial managers see this bright path forward.