Separation made simple – innovation scale-up

Posted on 13 Jan 2023 by Joe Bush

Starbons is a former University of York Green Chemistry spinout incorporated in 2012, which became an independent company in 2017. Starbons manufactures mesoporous carbons from biorenewable biomass. We caught up with CEO, Susan Brench, at SME Growth Summit 2022 to find out more about the company and its journey so far.

Can you explain what Starbons does?

We are a micro start-up company. We’re a very small, innovation-based organisation that is currently scaling up from pilot to demonstration. We take polysaccharides (starch, pectin, seaweed extracts etc), and make them into materials that can capture or separate difficult mixtures to extract useful elements. It’s a processing aid and an isolation media for different manufacturing processes.

Susan Brench
Susan Brench, CEO at Starbons, sat down with The Manufacturer at Smart Factory Expo 2022

One typical end application is that we have been working with a company in Leeds to invent a novel way of extracting cannabinoids. Starbons is being used as the isolation media and enables the extraction to occur in one simple step. The process is much less mass and energy intensive than traditional cannabinoid extraction.

What are the key takeaways from your keynote at SME Growth Summit?

I described the innovation journey that we’ve come through, the challenges we’ve faced and some top tips. Taking a former university spin-out to an independent entity can be somewhat complex. Some of the scale-up issues are centred around the availability of assets and being able to replicate what you’re doing in the laboratory on a larger scale, and commercialising that idea.

What often gets missed by university spin-outs is customer discovery. You may have a very exciting, interesting technology, but is it something that a customer needs? When I came into the business, the people involved were already excited about the range of markets that the materials could be used in. However, we narrowed the focus down to a couple of key markets so that we could commercialise effectively.

What have been the main scale-up challenges?

The key challenges have been around taking something that works in a laboratory, and then translating that into something that’s going to work at scale using equipment that is viable. In addition, because we’re using natural materials, they are inherently variable. So, there have also been challenges around having a constant output because customers obviously want something that is consistent.

What advice would you have for SMEs undertaking a similar journey?

What springs to mind is minimum viable product – don’t look for perfection. Look at what the customer and the market really need. If you don’t need to go to the nth degree, don’t. Consider how technology is scalable from a practical sense. Another top tip is to collaborate. If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.

Where we’ve made the biggest gains has been by working with engineering companies, collaborating and networking with funding or accelerator platforms and meeting companies that can help us on our journey – don’t be afraid to ask for help.

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