An innovation scale-up journey made simple

Posted on 31 Oct 2022 by Lanna Deamer

As part of Digital Manufacturing Week, SME Growth Summit is the go-to event for anyone working as a manufacturing organisation with a turnover up to £100m. Over the two days, the conference will be covering key strategic, business and technical challenges across the manufacturing ecosystem – with maximum opportunity to network, debate and engage with your peers.

Susan Brench, CEO of Starbons
Susan Brench, CEO of Starbons

Susan Brench, CEO of Starbons, will deliver a keynote at SME Growth Summit, around the company’s innovation journey. Starbons is a former University of York Green Chemistry spin-out incorporated in 2012, which became an independent company in 2017.

Starbons manufactures mesoporous carbons from bio-renewable biomass. Simply put, a Starbon is like a solid sponge which allows different species to pass through or stick to it, therefore, allowing the sustainable capture or separation of substances, without the need for high temperature or pressure conditions.

Having studied Physical Natural Sciences and Chemical Engineering at the University of Cambridge, Susan embarked upon a 30+ year career in the fine and speciality chemical manufacturing sector. She has also worked for two major UK banks in manufacturing focussed roles. Susan came across Starbons three years ago, during the course of undertaking some consultancy work through her company Akemi Associates which she founded in 2018.

From speaking with Susan, it was clear to see how passionate she is about leveraging innovation in science and engineering to build a more sustainable society. Specifically, to make products and processes ‘greener’, including valorisation of waste that might otherwise be disposed of. To that end Susan is also a member of the judging panel of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s annual Emerging Technologies competition and a business mentor for the competition winners.

SME Growth Summit would like to thank co-organiser Autodesk; knowledge partner Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge; and sponsors Michael PageMade SmarterDXC TechnologyEDGE Digital ManufacturingEpicorERA FoundationInnovate UK KTNInstitute for Export & International Trade, and Verve4Growth.

Still based in York, Starbons designs and manufactures products made from bio renewable starting materials, providing technical solutions in end use applications such as gas capture, specialty separations and encapsulation. In some instances, the products can enable the adoption of more sustainable processing methodologies, reduced temperatures and pressures and fewer processing steps.

Susan explained more about her role as CEO: “When I came across Starbons in 2019, I recognised the technology’s potential but that business leadership was required to make it a reality. My role at Starbons has been to drive the company out of dormancy to independent commercial success; providing strategic direction, market focus, introducing governance and addressing scale-up, manufacturing and supply chain issues.”

Describe Starbons innovation journey in three words?

Start – Stop – Accelerate!

What highlights can attendees look forward to in your keynote at SME Growth Summit?

I will be discussing the company’s innovation journey:

  • From dormancy to commercialisation
  • Challenges faced and lessons learned
  • Hits and tips for success

How integral is sustainability to Starbons’ overall business strategy?

Absolutely crucial. It’s up front and central. The name ‘Starbon’ comes from Starch and carbonisation. The academics at the University of York’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence were approached to find a use for waste materials.

Not only do we look to valorise waste, but we also seek to minimise the carbon footprint of our own manufacturing processes. Furthermore, our technology can assist with making other manufacturing processes more sustainable.

What has Starbons’ innovation journey been like so far?

Over the last three years we have scaled up from bench (lab) scale (grammes) to multi kgs (pilot plant) scale. Importantly, we focussed down onto two high value core markets: separations (solid phase extraction) and gas capture.

For example, where separations are concerned, we have been working with a UK-based company to invent a novel methodology for extraction of cannabinoids. This has been achieved in one single step, whereas incumbent methodologies involve cryogenic freezing, short path distillation, crystallisation and chromatography. These processes are mass and/or energy intensive.

Within this year, we expect to offer a reusable SPE (Solid Phase Extraction) system that can eliminate or vastly reduce the need for such technologies. A scaled-up prototype is in the design phase for implementation in Q1 2023.

In terms of optimising the manufacturing process with a view to further scale-up, we have just kicked off a 12 month Innovate UK funded project.

At SME Growth Summit (SGS), Susan Brench, CEO of Starbons, will share the company’s innovation journey so far, from dormancy to commercialisation, as well as looking at the challenges faced and lessons learned.

What challenges have you faced along the way?

Resource, be that people or cash, is a fundamental challenge for start-ups. Early-stage companies in the science and engineering sector often have the challenge of proving the technology/products, which can take months or even years, in order to gain traction and thus attract third-party funding. Finding the cash to finance this ‘proof-of-concept’ and test marketing activity can be difficult – often it has to come from ‘bootstrapping’. For example, time given pro bono by those in the business, personal loans and grant funding.

Grants often require matched funding and thus can be prohibitive at the early stage, especially if CAPEX is required. Once a business case to scale up from the lab has been established, it can be another challenge to find suitable manufacturing assets – especially when a process is so innovative that it is not possible to ‘drop in’ to existing pilot or contract manufacturers’ facilities. So, it’s not always simple to provide early-stage material which will be representative of larger scale production.

A further complication is that since Starbons are derived from natural materials, there is inherent variability to understand; it’s so important to pin down the impact (if any) of the source and grade of feedstock in relation to the customer end use.

Furthermore, physical form can play a huge role when it comes to performance in the end use application. More often than not, it’s expensive for prospects to trial material so the process of evaluation should be de-risked for the potential customer as far as possible. We have to be mindful of regulatory matters, for example REACH, and end use application standards.

What lessons have you learned so far?

Throughout the journey, I would urge other manufacturers to keeping asking ‘why?’ We’ve debunked some technical ‘myths’ and we are now in the fortunate position to have a deep understanding of our raw materials and processes which has delivered a robust body of confidential ‘know-how’ outside of our patents to take us forwards.

What tips would you give to SMEs just starting out on their journey?

  • It’s very important to identify potential strategic partners and market focus early on, and to be prepared to ‘pivot’ many times.
  • Customer discovery should come early in the journey, not last. No matter how exciting the technology is from an academic or scientific standpoint, it has to fulfil a commercial need and stand up against the competition (be that direct or indirect).
  • Be prepared to fail fast and consider a minimum viable product or technology and not to strive for perfection!
  • Putting in place an advisory board, and then more formally non-executive directors, can prove invaluable.
  • Engaging with relevant innovation and industry bodies can be an effective means to be signposted to accelerator programmes and funding opportunities, also to like-minded organisations, including potential suppliers, customers and contractors.

Starbons has participated in funded venture and investor readiness programmes (run by the KTN, PAPI and the LEP). These have been invaluable. There is low cost/free of charge support out there for entrepreneurs. I would advise any micro-business to use those resources to raise their profile and most importantly, assess their product or service’s market potential as early as possible. Investors are keen to see early traction.


*Tickets are for manufacturers only.

SME Growth Summit is for all senior professionals responsible for people, platform and process and for those looking to bring in new ideas into their business model. Find out more.