|The UK's latest 'wonder material' is made from sugar beet|
|A Scottish start-up has developed a material made from carrots and sugar beet that it claims is twice as strong as
carbon fibre, and is taking on the multinationals such as Dow Chemical with its "eco" take on chemical additives.
Cellucomp, which is based in Burntisland, north of Edinburgh, has been working on a cellulose nano-fibre, which is extracted from root vegetables, for more than a decade. Curran, which is the Gaelic word for carrot, is an eco- friendly alternative to man-made variants that can release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere.
The innovative material can be used for hundreds of applications, from food to cosmetics and even concrete. Cellucomp is focusing on commercialising a product for the paints and coatings industry. When added to water-based paints, Curran thickens and strengthens the product, preventing cracking and "sagging".
Cellucomp began selling the nano-fibre to the paints industry a year and a half ago, and has just announced plans to move into a new manufacturing facility that will take production from 15 tons per year, generating a turnover of £100,000, to 50 tons.
Globally, the market for paint and coating additives is worth £2bn. The industry has undergone a decade of intense change, according to Cellucomp's chief executive, Christian Kemp-Griffin. "Regulation is forcing these green materials into paints," he said. "The paints industry has come a long way but the screws are tightening."
Curran can be used as a liquid or as a powder and can even be spun into thread Curran cannot make a paint "sustainable" on its own, as it only accounts for between 0.5pc to 0.8pc of the final formulation, but "it does attract companies with a mandate to use as many green products as possible", he said.
The company has also launched its own paint formulation, which will be sold in retailers by the end of the year, in a bid to showcase the efficacy of Curran and drum up more business.
Convincing customers to adopt a totally new material is challenging, admitted Mr Kemp-Griffin. "This is a very technical sale because we have to work with customers to incorporate Curran into different coatings," he explained. "Some companies don't have the stomach to go all the way, and it's a very long process."
Once Curran has been added to a coating, however, it's likely to remain an ingredient for years. "A lot of money is invested in new formulations so once you're in, you're in for a while," said Mr Kemp-Griffin.
The company has gone from just three people to 12 in four years, with plans to hire additional staff for the plant. The company has the potential to make up to 400 tons of Curran at the new site, and is planning to scale up to 2,000 tons per year within three years.
Curran was invented by Cellucomp founders and scientists Dr David Hepworth and Dr Eric Whale, who were attempting to create a composite to rival carbon fibre. Their first product was a fly fishing rod.
Chief executive Christian Kemp-Griffin (left) with Cellucomp's founders Dr David Hepworth and Dr Eric Whale The pair chose to use root vegetables - namely carrots - in the early days because they were readily available and, unlike wood, which is used by other nano cellulose manufacturers, the crop grows quickly and can be broken down more easily.
"In the early days, they were buying carrots at the local grocer to develop the product," said Mr Kemp-Griffin. "They would fill four shopping trolleys with carrots in a single trip.
"They started buying so many that they were asked by the local shops to find their carrots elsewhere as they were making inventory control a nightmare."
In 2011, the company pivoted to focus on coatings and paints, which was a more lucrative market. It also moved to sugar beet, produced at an industrial scale for sugar across Europe, the US and Asia, which makes it a more stable raw material. Cellucomp takes the used pulp once the sugar has been extracted, which is currently used for animal feed.
Mr Kemp-Griffin says his company's innovation will help put Scotland on the biotech map. "The Scottish government has just come out with a national plan for bio-industry, which is set to make up a significant proportion of its economy, and we're right at the centre of this sector," he said. Biorefining is estimated to be worth nearly £200m to the Scottish economy and the government has said it aims to reach £900m per year by 2025.
Cellucomp has received significant support from Scottish Enterprise, which promotes the country's start-ups. "We've had funding, subsidies and help accessing customers and talent," said Mr Kemp-Griffin.
In total, the business has received just over £1m in grants from the Scottish government, and has raised a further £3m from angel investors and venture capital funds including Stephen Bronfman's Montreal-based Claridge and French outfit Sofinnova.
This is a small sum in advanced materials science terms. "We have been very lean, and for the first few years there were only three people working on the project," says Mr Kemp-Griffin. "We don't face the same problems as other product businesses because it's not capital intensive to scale."
"It's taken a long time for the company to reach this point, where we have a product on the market," he added. "But now we're here, we'll accelerate growth very quickly.
Having cracked the paint conundrum, the firm will soon diversify. "We could become a billion-pound company," says Mr Kemp-Griffin.
By Rebecca Burn-Callander, Enterprise Editor