Petri Alava, the firm’s CEO, says that he was seeking an attractive business just when VTT Ventures was seeking an entrepreneur for its fibre technology. Alava has a long history of executive positions in international sales, marketing and business, most recently as the CEO of Kekkilä.
– I was attracted by the craziness of the project; the story behind the technology was particularly interesting. It was clear that the technology had global market potential from the very beginning. VTT had done great work at the customer interface and large companies were already interested. A sufficiently in-depth study had been done of cost-competitiveness and its importance was understood, says Alava.
Pulp fibre that circulates forever
Infinited Fiber is using technology developed at VTT, which involves the extraction of cellulose from various cellulose-rich raw materials and its conversion into a solution from which new fibres can be made. After use, it can be recycled via the same process time after time, without affecting quality.
– This is also the origin of the company’s name: Infinited Fiber - fibre made to last forever.
Applications include various textile fibres such as clothes, home textiles, hygiene products and technical textiles. The fibre can account for 100% of these products, or form a major part of a mixed fabric.
The technology has been developed to an advanced stage at VTT. A major breakthrough was made by testing an idea by Research Professor Ali Harlin five years ago – could old newspapers or banana crates be turned into new fibres? Tests progressed by trial and error and the textile waste ended up on the laboratory bench.
Europe and the United States recycle only around fifteen percent of their textile waste.
There is demand for new fibre
Cotton volumes will not suffice for the world markets. Its availability is forecast to fall by 2 to 3 percent by 2030. Reasons for this change include less arable land due to a shift towards food production.
– Cotton production will fall, even if cultivation becomes more efficient. As availability decreases, demand for fibres will grow and a cellulose fibre shortage will arise on the markets. There is, of course, viscose, but it has a drawback: environmentally harmful carbon disulphide is required in its production.
Meanwhile, consumers are demanding that the fashion giants join the circular economy.
– There are good grounds for this, since around 70 million tons of textile waste are taken to landfills each year. Europe and the United States recycle only around 15 percent of their textile waste and even less is recycled elsewhere. Only slightly over half of recycled textiles are used.
– Infinited Fiber can manufacture new fibres from paper waste, which are very close to virgin raw material in terms of their properties. Fibres manufactured from waste textiles have somewhat inferior properties.
– We are engaged in pilots involving the exploration of raw material alternatives and the production of various blends. Profitable production requires raw material in large quantities.
The company began operating in October 2016, by interviewing potential investors.
– We held discussions with large international actors and attracted plenty of interest. We also entered into negotiations with VTT on the possibility of starting up production in its Bioruukki pilot plant.
Production begins at Bioruukki
Infinited Fiber began production in 2017, in VTT’s Bioruukki research facility in Espoo.
– Part of our activities is research-oriented, which we do alongside customers. We are currently developing optimal properties for articles such as jeans and hygiene products.
The company’s customer base includes home textile, clothing and hygiene product firms.
For example, Alava mentions the American VF Corporation, whose product brands include Lee, Wrangler and Timberland. Fibre recycling is a new departure for this research-intensive company.
– In addition, we have a major home textiles and furniture company as one of our research-oriented partners. The company is researching issues such as the material’s colour receptiveness, durability and UV resistance. The research provided us with valuable information on the optimal properties of fibre products.
Cellulose fibres have antibacterial properties. This is interesting for manufacturers of hygiene products, who are under pressure to move away from polyester and plastic waste, which is causing major environmental problems in the oceans.
– Polyester is currently the main raw material in wiping products; this could be replaced with biodegradable cellulose fibres made from waste materials, says Alava.
Although the company’s R&D is being conducted in Finland, production will be done in the world’s textile industry cluster: the Far East. A discussion is under way in Turkey on a letter of intent to set up a fibre factory.
– Finland lacks the required volumes of large-scale business in textile waste, but one commercial plant may be established here. We have major co-partners, with whom we are assessing Finland’s potential as a production site.
Product launches over the next few years
Alava anticipates that products will enter the markets by the end of 2019, or 2020.
– Perhaps even before then in a limited market area. We intend to engage in large-scale commercial activities of pulp mill size.
Alava estimates that this would have a EUR 100 million price tag, while a smaller venture would cost around EUR 30 million.
– This is not about a typical startup. The slow schedules and investments necessary for actual commercial activities are making financiers hesitant.
– Funding is scarce in Finland, despite the fine work done by Tekes. Due to the lack of funding instruments in Finland, we are engaging in negotiations in regions such as Asia.
On the day of the interview, Petri Alava was awaiting a financing decision from a group of investors based in Hong Kong.
Polyester is currently the main raw material in wiping products; this could be replaced with biodegradable cellulose fibres made from waste materials.
– Our products will hit the market at the end of 2019 or in 2020, estimates Petri Alava.
Infinited Fiber Company
- The company uses chemical process technology to manufacture entirely new cellulose fibre from textile and cardboard waste.
- Established in October 2016.
- Headquarters in Espoo.
- Technology developed by VTT.
Photos: VTT, iStock