Without innovation, there is no change or incentive for improvement. Innovators are the driving force behind productivity, competitiveness, and progress. With each of our innovator stories, we get a chance to meet the people behind EU-funded ideas, which have the potential to change our future for the better.

With that in mind, we spoke with Florence Gschwend, who participated in the Innovation Radar’s Sustainability E-pitching Event on 5 April 2022. She is the CTO and co-founder of Lixea, a company focused on developing an innovative biomass fractionation process using low-cost ionic liquids to revolutionise the way we process bio-waste. Florence has received numerous accolades, including the EIT Change Award and the IChemE Young Researcher Award. She is passionate about using her skills to make a lasting difference in the environment and society and was named one of Europe’s most promising game-changers under 30 by Forbes.


Can you tell us more about yourself and your work?

Our company was originally formed at Imperial College of London, where I did my PhD between 2013 and 2017, but the actual invention goes back to the work of my co-founders in 2008-2009. We developed a new chemical process that uses an environmentally friendly solvent to separate the various wood components. The paper industry, for example, is already processing wood to make paper, but the potential of wood-derived elements is much bigger.

Our end goal is to replace all chemicals and fuels made from petroleum or crude oil by instead using waste biogenic raw materials, such as agricultural residues or sawdust from timber production, and sawdust that is sifted out in the current paper-making processes. We can use these residual streams instead of chopping down more forests or pumping oil out from the ground.

What problem is your product solving and what makes its solution unique?

The problem we are trying to solve is that most bio-derived products are struggling to compete with petroleum-derived alternatives. We focus on low-cost feedstocks but also capture the value from all the different wood components, which leads to a better economical offering. The paper industry has been around for about 150 years, but they only capture value from about 50 to 60% of the wood while the rest is not equally valorised. They also only use virgin input materials and generate a lot of chemical waste.

We have a more environmentally friendly process, which produces minimum chemical waste. We try to use all the available waste streams for our processes, from sources such as the agricultural sector, the timber industry, or the construction industry. These new products can compete better with petroleum-based alternatives currently on the market.


How did you start your journey, and where are you now on the road to achieving your ambition?

Agi (Brandt), one of my colleagues, was doing her PhD on this project and was in the process of screening different solvents. At the time, our research community was working in a dry environment. All the wood was dried beforehand, and so were the solvents.

That day she forgot to dry the solvent, and suddenly it all worked much better. The innovation ended up coming out of it and she, together with the people involved in her project, ended up filing two patents. When I started my PhD, we filed a third patent about using waste wood as a raw material.

I joined two of my co-inventors for a customer discovery programme at Imperial College, and soon more entrepreneurship competitions followed. By the time I finished my PhD, we had done quite a few of them already, and that is where our funding and prize money came from, as well. In 2017 we thought to ourselves, “Well, it’s now or never “, and founded the company.

I never had the intention of staying in academia, so focusing on Lixea seemed like a good fit. Both Jason (Hallett) and Agi (Brandt), my co-founders and co-inventors, stayed at the Imperial College carrying out research until this day, and I have been running the company ever since.

We have also been able to significantly grow our company since we won a grant from the European Innovation Council two years ago, making us a total of nine full-time workers. I am grateful to have such a big and supportive team. This made it possible for me to hand my CEO duties over to one of my colleagues and be able to focus solely on the technical side of things at Lixea, which is what I’m currently doing.


Have you already tested your product with clients? What was it like?

I look forward to the next couple of months as we will finally be able to test our pilot plant, which is currently in the commissioning stage. It produces cellulose and lignin with additional by-products, which will allow us to engage more with downstream customers. Until now we have been working mainly with lab-scale samples which are very small and time consuming to produce. With the pilot plant, we will be looking at tens of kilos of our material produced right away.


What is your company’s greatest achievement to date?

Building our pilot plant. The journey toward securing the funding has been difficult, and we have been lucky enough to have received the grant from the European Innovation Council. As we started the project in June 2020, the pandemic was in full swing, and we also had to recruit new members. As our pilot plant is in Sweden, travelling in the light of restrictions has been a nightmare.

We are still waiting on some of the plant pieces to come through the supply chains, but we should be able to operate in two or three weeks. Making it this far under the global circumstances is an achievement, if not a miracle (laughs).

How do you see Lixea making a difference in the future?

We would want to license the technology for commercial-scale plans to convert a lot of wood waste or agricultural residues that would otherwise get burned. We are talking about significant CO2 savings. This will help create more jobs in rural areas, which is the progress we would like to see.

We are pursuing the environmental impact of using waste resources that would otherwise get burnt or left to rot in the field, and instead, produce something that can replace petrochemicals and benefit the local communities that might not have access to oil or gas but have a strong agricultural sector. We would like them to keep their economy intact and use the available resources. Hopefully, that would contribute to a more equitable society, especially in Southeast Asia or, more generally, the global South.


Why is participation in Dealflow’s e-pitching event and receiving their coaching important to you?

As our project is about to end, we are looking for a lead investor to help us raise €5m to finance the future of Lixea. We need to be connected to relevant investors. There are many out there, but only few invest in our sector. Networking is key for our work.


How would you define success and what keeps you going in the pursuit of it?

The ultimate success for us would be reaching commercial scale and starting to make a difference by converting thousands of tons of raw material into new products, we cannot wait to start. Even if by any chance we do not reach that, it won’t be a complete failure, because, with everything that we do, we add more to our, the wider society’s and industry’s knowledge.

The type of solvent that we are using is a new type of solvent, a so-called “ionic liquid”. Ionic liquids have not been used in our industry much so far but they have different potential applications. So, if a specific project or a process doesn’t turn out to be viable for whatever reason, there will always be learnings coming from them, which would help other researchers or even us as a team, to develop a different process with the same solvents to benefit a different type of technology. We do believe that with every technical challenge we overcome, we reach a small success.



About Innovators Spotlight Stories

The aim of innovator stories is to highlight and share with investors and relevant stakeholders in the industry, insights and unique stories from some of the most innovative EU-funded project that Dealflow.eu is proud to support.

If you are an investor who wants to connect with Lixea, please feel free to reach out at [email protected]