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Some 40 entrepreneurs and almost twice as many investors attended the two-day Tech Tour Circular event on 24 and 25 April, organised by Tech Tour, the Bio-based Industries Consortium and Green Chem network of Ghent University, in cooperation with the City of Ghent (Belgium). The event started on the evening of 24 April with a networking dinner at the Ghent city hall and was followed on 25 April by a productive day of pitches and presentations.
Pierre Gielen

Tech Tour is a networking organisation that connects entrepreneurs seeking funding for their sustainable innovations with investors. And successfully so: last year, 1,200 companies participated and 81% of them were able to raise money.

“We love entrepreneurs,” said William Stevens, Group Managing Director of Tech Tour. “Because they have the passion to go after ambitious goals and they do it with resilience and perseverance. Entrepreneurship is an important solution to the many challenges we have in our world.”

Flanders as home port

The Belgian federal state of Flanders holds sustainability and circularity in high regard. It is no coincidence that it is home to many knowledge institutes, (chemical) industries and innovative start-ups, as well as many facilitators.

The Ghent area, with its innovative ecosystem in particular, is therefore seen as an ideal location by the steel company ArcelorMittal. Koen Mols, Head of Business Development: “Here, we are working intensively with regional parties such as Ghent University, Smart Delta Resources and North Sea Port. Because we want to become a leader in environmentally-sustainable steel production.”

Strict European regulations lead to the need to invest in sustainability, while countries outside the EU have a competitive advantage in this area. Nevertheless, ArcelorMittal does not see this only as a necessary evil. Mols: “We see this mainly as a way to secure a competitive edge in the future. After all, demand for sustainable steel is increasing worldwide.”

This is why the company focuses on carbon capture and the use of renewable energy, but also on innovative technology such as a gas fermentation plant that converts industrial emissions into biofuels and green chemicals. This so-called Carbon Smart project is currently also investigating the possibility of using the output of this plant to create microbiome proteins for aquaculture.

Bridging the gap

A major contributor to opportunities to valorise scientific knowledge in the region is the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant (BBEPP) in Ghent, an initiative of Professor Wim Soetaert of Ghent University who also director of this plant. “It positions itself as a one-stop shop for companies looking to scale up and pilot biobased processes,” Soetaert explains. “Their goal is to create biorefineries that convert renewable resources into chemicals, materials and energy.”

He talked about the extensive facilities and expertise of the BBEPP, where now over 180 employees with various specialisations are working on various services, including pre-treatment, biocatalysis, fermentation, green chemistry and downstream processing. “They can help companies improve their biobased processes across a wide range of technologies and to a significant volume, up to 75 cubic metres.” In addition, they enable custom manufacturing of initial quantities of bioproducts. This helps companies obtain sufficient product for applications testing and market introduction, among others.

Soetaert emphasises the importance of pilot plants in helping innovations navigate the “Valley of Death”, a concept referring to the high failure rate between early research and commercialisation. Pilot plants bridge the gap between lab research and full-scale production by providing a platform for testing and optimising technologies at a larger scale. They accelerate the development process, at lower cost and with less financial risk, before large investments are made. “Successfully navigating the pilot stage will boost confidence in the technology and in biobased processes and can attract investors.”


Raising sufficient capital to scale up can still be a pitfall for both start-ups and already established companies. Professor of Corporate Finance Sophie Manigart of Vlerick Business School highlighted the challenges companies face after they develop a technology and need to grow their business. She discussed the importance of dispelling myths about scale-up funding. While external equity can be helpful, it’s not always necessary. Her research shows that one-third of high-growth companies in Europe achieved success primarily with internal funding. “Some entrepreneurs may even be hesitant to accept external funding, due to concerns about losing control or investor influence. Companies that do receive external funding, however, tend to experience higher growth on average.” Unfortunately, European investors are more likely to shy away from large investments with uncertain outcomes, leading to a scale-up funding gap.

The European Scaleup Institute (ESI) recently published a report on the investment climate for scale-ups in Europe. It can be downloaded from the ESI website.

Panel discussion

Next up was a panel discussion on the positive aspects of scaling up in Flanders, moderated by Maarten Lambert, consultant of Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT), with Maarten Den Dekker (North Sea Port), Olivier Van Raemdonck (law firm Cresco), Johan Keppens (investment fund PMV) and Pieter Nachtergaele (Ghent University, on behalf of the EU Bioeconomy Youth Ambassadors). The tone of the discussion was positive: optimism about the future of the circular economy based on the availability of talent, increasing collaboration, and growing access to finance.

There were also some critical notes, such as the call for a unified European approach towards regulations and the observation of a slowdown in venture capital investments overall. On the other hand, this brings new opportunities, such as a rise in alternative funding sources for startups, like strategic partnerships with established players.

In addition, the importance of considering social and environmental factors alongside economic goals was highlighted. Many young people are motivated by sustainability and are eager to contribute but become discouraged by the negativity surrounding environmental issues. “It underlines the importance of showcasing success stories in the circular economy to inspire future generations,” said Pieter Nachtergaele.

Pitching sessions

During six different pitching sessions, about 40 entrepreneurs were then able to showcase their innovations in an attempt to lure investors. Some examples from the Bioeconomy and Chemistry & Plastics sessions, in which companies are seeking partners and investors to scale up their business.

Several companies focused on the production and application of high-quality lignin for the production of biobased products, like Bloom Biorenewables from Switzerland, LignoPure and LXP Group from Germany.

Cleantech companies Chromafora from Sweden and InstrAction from Germany have both developed water treatment technologies to remove PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) from water. Due to their persistence, PFAS are also known as ‘forever chemicals’ and they are causing concern throughout Europe.

Responding to the protein vegetable trend, Those Vegan Cowboys from the Netherlands make vegan cheese, by producing the essential protein casein in a precision fermentation process. Using a ‘stainless steel cow’ as they call their fermentation vessel, is more sustainable than dairy farming. Their first cheeses will be introduced in the US next year, and in Europe a few years later due to the Novel Food legislation.

Pack2Earth from Spain makes compostable biopolymers for packing materials with long shelf lives, which do not leave behind microplastics. It aims to replace 50,000 tons of conventional plastic packaging with their biomaterials by 2029.

AmphiStar from Belgium is a spin-off from the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant that develops bio-surfactants from waste and side streams, using a biological production process.

Eleqtric Global from the Netherlands is developing a dry storage method for hydrogen, by converting it into a powder that can be transported in a sort of large Nespresso cup. It can be converted back into hydrogen on-demand for electricity generation. The company plans to target the diesel generator market initially.

NatureBeads, a company based in India, has developed a solution for microplastics coming from cosmetics, detergents, and other applications. They offer a drop-in replacement: biodegradable microspheres made from cellulose, a natural biopolymer. NatureBeads is raising funds to build their first production plant.

Re.solution, a spinoff from RTWH Aachen (Germany), and Resortecs from Belgium both focus on making the textile industry more circular. R.esolution is developing a new technology to chemically recycle polyester from blended textiles, using hydrolysis and electrochemistry. Resortecs, Recycling Made Easy has developed a special thread that melts at high temperatures, making it possible to easily disassemble and recycle garments.

Expert juries assessed these and many other pitches from the Tech Tour event for their attractiveness to investors. From these, eight promising winners were selected: Blue Activity, ENERSENS, Maana Electric, NaturBeads, Pack2Earth, Qustom Dots, Resortecs – Recycling Made Easy and Those Vegan Cowboys.

Belgian BISC-E final

An important part of the Tech Tour Circular event was the national Belgian final of the Bio-based Innovation Student Challenge (BISC-E) before an expert jury. BISC-E is a European competition supported by BIC. It challenges students to explore innovation and business development in the emerging bioeconomy while developing a new biobased product or process.

Team Charbrick, composed of students from the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering of Ghent University, won the Belgian competition. The team introduced a new type of concrete incorporating biochar made from spent coffee grounds, thus reducing the environmental impact of both coffee consumption and concrete production.

Charbrick is made by the slow pyrolysis of coffee grounds to create biochar, bio-oil and biogas. The oil and gas are used to fuel both the pyrolysis process and concrete production, improving energy efficiency. The biochar is incorporated into the concrete, improving its strength and insulation properties. Since it sequesters carbon, Charbrick has the potential to earn carbon credits. The jury judged this project to be the most promising.

Second place went to Team Eco-Gel (also from Ghent University), who developed a bioactive compound that can help fight food waste by reducing fruit and vegetable spoilage. The compound is dispersed from a container attached to the air vent of a supermarket storage room. It consists of polyphenolic compounds extracted from orange peels, pectin, chitosan and activated carbon.

Third place was won by Team Scoby Paper (Ghent University and Artevelde UAS), with paper made from Scoby: the live fungus used to produce the increasingly popular fermented tea drink kombucha. The cellulose fibres from Scoby can be mixed with recycled paper pulp to make a new paper that is more tear resistant. This process reduces the amount of harsh chemicals and bleaching agents compared to traditional paper production.

All winners of the national BISC-E competitions in the participating countries will be supported with a coaching programme and will enter the European finals organised by BIC in the autumn. They thus have a chance to win cash prizes, membership and access to BIC’s expert network.

This article was produced in collaboration with Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC)